The state of transgender rights: Social and political battle hits home in Minnesota

FROM NORTH CAROLINA to South Dakota, the rights of trans­gender and gender-nonconforming people, including students, are front and center in a social and political battle.

The fight is playing out in Minnesota classrooms as well.

In recent years, schools such as Mounds Park Academy and districts such as St. Paul Public Schools have enacted policies against discrimina­tion based on gender identity. The Minnesota State High School League also voted to allow transgender stu­dents to play on teams that fit their gender identity.

In March, Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature proposed a bill that would limit transgen­der and gender-nonconforming people’s use of bathrooms and locker rooms to their biological sex. A similar bill was recently enacted in North Carolina.

Supporters say that having laws banning transgender and gender-fluid people from using facilities that do not correspond to their biologi­cal gender would protect privacy. Opponents say these bills and laws are discriminatory.

“What people don’t understand is that we are just as human as the rest of them,” said Andy, a transgender student in Minnesota. (Only his first name is being used in this story.) He says that progress has been made in transgender rights, but challenges still remain.

‘Bring down barriers’

The St. Paul Public Schools district took action on the issue in February 2014, when work on a gender inclu­sion policy began after students reported harassment and discrimina­tion, according to the SPPS website.

The policy, which passed in March 2015, includes rules to respect all students’ rights to be addressed by their preferred name and pronouns, to prohibit separating students by gender without a valid educational reason during academic program­ming, to allow all students to join co-curricular and extracurricular activities that correspond to their gender identity, and to provide students access to facilities that suit a student’s gender identity.

“I think as educational institu­tions, our work has to be to bring down barriers that prevent students from focusing on their growth and learning,” said Mary Hoelscher, a program specialist at Out For Equity, which aims to create a safe and wel­coming school environment in the St. Paul Public Schools district. “And policies such as this create that space that’s needed.”

Hoelscher also said extending more protection and rights to trans­gender and gender-nonconforming students in schools can help educate communities and create a safer environment.

“(The policies) also provide an opportunity for community mem­bers to understand how to support students better and create the learn­ing opportunity,” Hoelscher said. “It establishes a clear expectation across the institution, it provides account­ability for if something doesn’t go as well as it ought to. I think it also is very affirming for students to see that they count, they have clear pro­tection and support.”

‘We need to have a policy’

Public schools are not the only institutions who are tackling the issue of gender inclusion. Private and charter schools are working on it as well. Mounds Park Academy, an independent private school, recently put into place a policy that was met with positive responses, according to a Pioneer Press report.

However, controversy has circled Nova Classical Academy.

The public charter school initially planned to take steps in educating students in an effort to provide sup­port for a gender-nonconforming child, but delayed after meeting challenges from parents and the public. Nearly 400 parents at the school signed a petition earlier this year opposing mixed-sex bathrooms, according to the Minnesota Family Council, a local Christian organiza­tion (although the executive director of the school has said those numbers are “exaggerated,” according to a Star Tribune report). Some pulled their children out of the school, according to reports.

The school has spent months working on a policy for supporting transgender and gender-noncon­forming students, and the board of directors expects to adopt a policy this spring.

“We need to have a policy,” board chair Paul Mason said. “We can’t deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis.”

The student has since transferred schools as the school continues to work on the policy.

The political fight

Several states have recently adopted or considered laws that would limit the usage of bath-rooms, locker rooms and other facilities based on gender.

In March, the governor of North Carolina signed a controversial bill limiting transgender people to using a bathroom of their biological sex, instead of the sex with which they identify. The governor of South Dakota vetoed a similar bill in early March that would have limited public school students to using bathrooms and locker rooms that matched their bio-logical sex.

Also in March, Minnesota House Republicans revealed plans for a similar bill to restrict transgender people’s access to bathrooms, locker rooms and changing facilities that match their biological gender.

“Children, and their parents, need to know that their safety and privacy rights will be protected, particularly when they are in intimate settings away from home,” said John Helmberger, the chief executive officer of Minnesota Family Council, in a March press release.

The Minnesota bill is not expected to go far. There was no vote during an April House committee hearing, and the Democratic-run Senate is unlikely to support it. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton also said he would veto the bill if it ended up on his desk.

“Current proposals to enshrine such measures of discrimination in our state laws are appalling,” Dayton said in an April press release, “and they are wrong.”