This week, Tennessee lawmakers are slated to consider a dangerous bill that would limit transgender students’ access to restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota recently vetoed a similar bill amid concerns that it was unnecessary and opened the state to costly litigation. In the first two months of 2016 alone, comparable proposals have been introduced in 11 other states. Half of those have stalled or been voted down, but the others are still before state legislatures in Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Lawmakers in North Carolina have indicated they may still introduce a bill of their own, and a group in Washington recently filed a statewide ballot initiative that would restrict access to bathrooms and locker rooms for transgender people.
After the veto in South Dakota, opponents of transgender equality are now trying to make Tennessee the first state in the country to pass this type of legislation. As they consider the bill before them, lawmakers in the state have good reason to follow Gov. Daugaard’s lead.
Laws limiting transgender students’ access to shared facilities are a textbook case of solutions in search of a problem. In recent months, I’ve interviewed hundreds of students, teachers and administrators about transgender issues in schools, including dozens of transgender students across the U.S. who would be directly affected by these policies if they were adopted. If legislators truly care about student privacy and safety, as they claim they do, they should reject these misguided bills.
It’s not necessary to limit access to shared facilities to protect privacy. In school restrooms, like any restroom, students are not exposing their bodies to each other. In restrooms, locker rooms and showers, legislators could support simple measures like stalls or curtains to protect all students’ privacy without discriminating against transgender kids.
These bills would not advance student safety, but they would further stigmatize transgender students who have a hard enough time in school as it is. Lawmakers have been unable to point to any instances in which transgender youth harass, intimidate or bully their peers in shared facilities. On the other hand, there is widespread documentation that transgender youth themselves are vulnerable in schools and are often subjected to verbal and physical violence at the hands of their non-transgender peers. The raft of invasive bathroom legislation threatens to make that worse.
The South Dakota bill, like the bill that Tennessee is considering, would have required transgender students to use facilities that match their sex assigned at birth. In South Dakota, students with a different gender identity could have requested another accommodation — for example, using a school nurse’s bathroom — but could not have used shared facilities that match their gender identity. Tennessee’s bill is even more draconian, and does not allow for any accommodations for transgender students at all.
A transgender girl is less safe when she is forced to use boys’ facilities, where she may well be exposed to harassment, bullying, and physical or sexual assault. And forcing transgender students — whose peers may not know they are transgender — to out themselves by requesting alternative facilities would jeopardize their privacy and safety too.
When transgender students feel stigmatized or unsafe because of restrictions on their bathroom access, they may avoid using bathrooms at all. Imagine the impact on a student’s health and academic performance of having to go all day, every day, without access to a bathroom. The best option is to allow transgender students to use the bathroom where they feel most safe and comfortable.
When lawmakers ignore pragmatic, simple solutions, it suggests that their actions owe more to their own prejudice or misplaced discomfort than genuine concerns about privacy and safety. In South Dakota, lawmakers indicated as much when they responded to practical critiques of their bill by calling transgender students “twisted,” speculating that their presence in shared facilities would traumatize their peers, and suggesting that restrictions on transgender students were necessary to protect “young, innocent girls.”
The harmful stereotypes some South Dakota lawmakers peddled were rejected by many of the students supposedly in need of “protection.” Hundreds of students wrote South Dakota’s lawmakers to oppose the bill. They made it clear that they don’t feel threatened by policies to ensure that all students are able to access facilities safely and comfortably.
Fortunately, Gov. Daugaard stood up for sensible, inclusive solutions in the face of fear-mongering. His veto sent a message that the dignity, privacy, health and safety of transgender students matter, and that message has not gone unnoticed by the youth it affects. As opponents of transgender equality shift their focus to Tennessee, lawmakers should be emboldened by Gov. Daugaard’s example, reject the politics of fear, and adopt practical solutions that respect and protect all our youth.
Ryan Thoreson is the Yale Law School Robert L. Bernstein International Human Rights Fellow at Human Rights Watch.