Steller: No need to fight TUSD's gender-identity policy

2014-05-04T00:00:00Z 2014-05-05T08:31:59Z Steller: No need to fight TUSD's gender-identity policyTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

This really should not be that hard.

A relative handful of people are born into bodies of a sex that their mind says they do not belong to. We may call some of these people transgender, while others are “gender-nonconforming” — people who simply don’t fit traditional gender molds.

Whatever the label, these people tend to have a tough time, especially as kids, because they don’t fit into the gender categories that we’re used to, and people — sometimes even parents — don’t accept that. As a result they often struggle, and have a high suicide rate.

The better person inside each of us should look at such a person, such a child, and say, “How can I help make your life easier?”

Tucson Unified School District’s new policy protecting people from discrimination on the basis of “gender identity or expression” is in that spirit. The newly announced opposition to the policy by a Scottsdale-based group called Alliance Defending Freedom is not.

TUSD passed the policy March 25, updating its existing non-discrimination policy — in a way that other states and districts already have — without much debate or fanfare. Only board member Mark Stegeman voted no, saying he wanted more time. I only knew of it because my good friend Diana Wilson worked with the district on creating the policy in response to some troubling activity at Henry Elementary School.

A student born as a girl identifies as a boy and began to use the boys’ bathroom. When the child tried to use the urinal, boys saw it. That set off controversy, with a few parents going so far as picketing over the administration allowing the child to use the boys’ bathroom. Eventually, in an unproductive early response, school officials sealed off the urinals.

That led to the policy change, and now, to the Alliance’s effort to overturn the policy, an effort that essentially denies the existence of transgender people.

“Permitting students to use opposite-sex restrooms would seriously endanger student safety, undermine parental authority, and severely impair an environment conducive to learning,” the Alliance said in a letter it sent on Thursday to TUSD’s board and superintendent. “TUSD should require students to use restrooms appropriate to their biological sex.”

In the simplistic outlook expressed here, “biological sex” is all that really exists.

In their proposed replacement policy, the Alliance allows that students who consistently assert a transgender identity, should be allowed to use single-stall bathrooms or faculty bathrooms in some circumstances.

The objections are framed in reasonable language that belie this group’s long-time motives.

Since its founding two decades ago as the Alliance Defense Fund, the re-named Alliance Defending Freedom has fought what it terms the “homosexual agenda.”

Among its initiatives: supporting the constitutionality of sodomy laws that were eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court and continuing to fight against gay marriage.

The fact that the Alliance is an anti-gay, religious-right group doesn’t mean parents can’t have legitimate concerns. Anna Henry parent Sean Ayers said he doesn’t “have an issue with a girl identifying as a boy using the boys’ bathroom, as long as the facilities are in place to keep the kids’ privacy.”

What he’s worried about is potential abuse of the non-discrimination policy, for example by boys wanting to get into the girls’ bathroom or locker room.

“You open up the door for a 16-year-old boy who identifies as a girl and says, ‘I want to use the girls’ locker room.’ No one can stop them, because the policy says you can’t.”

My suspicion is that these are unfounded fears and that school administrators and teachers will be able to deal with issues as they arise.

They are, after all, used to kids trying to pull one over on them.

Also, let’s not forget that exposing oneself to another student, assaulting another student and verbally attacking another student are all prohibited wherever the conduct occurs and whoever it involves.

I also suspect that this is more of an adult problem than a kid problem. Children tend to be naturally more flexible and open than their parents.

School board member Kristel Foster, who helped push the policy change, likened it to other efforts at integration and inclusiveness.

“We’ve done this with race, we’ve done this with religion, and now we’re understanding not everybody’s the same when it comes to sexuality and identity,” Foster said. “All of us in society are grappling with what that means.”

Indeed, on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it will treat discrimination on the basis of gender identity as violating civil rights law.

For the attorneys at the Alliance Defending Freedom, though, it’s a threat. The non-discrimination policy opens up TUSD to liability if students’ privacy is violated in bathrooms and locker rooms, attorney Jonathan Scruggs told me.

Maybe, in a world devoid of common sense or oversight.

But Asaf Orr of the National Center for Lesbian Rights noted to me that the states of Massachusetts, Colorado and Washington, as well as the Los Angeles Unified School District all have policies similar to the one adopted by TUSD. Even Sunnyside Unified School District prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.

“Millions of kids every year go through schools with these policies,” he said.

Generation after generation we’ve struggled through social changes.

We’ll make it through this one, too.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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