Friday, December 21, 2007

Locker Room Policy Discriminates Against Transgender Student

This story from Massachusetts shows why antidiscrimination statutes that govern educational institutions should be expanded or interpreted to include protection for transgender students.

Ethan Santiago is a 20 year old student at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He is a female-to-male transsexual who consistently presents as a man and is taking testosterone. Yet the College has refused to assign him a locker in the men's locker room because he has not had sex reassignment surgery. School officials were concerned that, unless his anatomy is consistent with his gender, he would not be safe in the men's locker room.

While I don't doubt that the College is trying to do the right thing, I don't think they realize the bind they've put Santiago in. Unless he has sex reassignment surgery -- an option that is expensive, time consuming, and for some transsexuals, inconsistent with how they view themselves -- his only choices are to either use the women's locker room or forgo whatever educational activity students need locker rooms for. The latter option alienates Santiago from an activity that his tuition dollars entitle him to participate in like every other student. And the former is unacceptable as well. The women's locker room is hardly the bastion of tolerance and goodwill for gender nonconforming individuals that the College is perhaps imagining. Santiago is likely to experience demoralizing harassment and probably have to explain himself to campus security on a regular basis. Even if the women's locker room patrons are unusually understanding, simply having to use a facility that is inconsistent with the gender you experience yourself as and present to the world has got to take a psychic toll.

As we've noted in the past, there are no judicial interpretations of Title IX that address whether transgender students have a right to access locker rooms or other single-sex facilities that are consistent with their presented gender, or even a right to access an equivalent gender-neutral facility, though such cases come up in the employment context with increasing frequency. Perhaps this is because a judicial result is likely to take longer than a students' four years of higher education, or because courts aren't always willing to interpret prohibitions on sex discrimination to include transgender plaintiffs. It also may be because universities are tending to accommodate transgender students, as we see by the increasing number of nondiscrimination policies that protect students regardless of their gender identity or expression.

But as this case and others make clear (consider this story of a Southern Utah University student who's been rejected from the men's dorm because he hasn't had SRS) there are still instances of colleges and universities failing to accommodate transgender students. This shows that there's still need for comprehensive nondiscrimination policies at the state, local, and university/college level. Both Massachusetts and Utah, it should be noted, have such legislation pending.