Where do they go?12/10/2014
Deciding which bathroom to use isn’t a concern for most people. They see the corresponding sign and walk in — no big deal. But for some, it’s not that simple.
Society has divided many places and activities — restrooms, sports teams, locker rooms, college communities, clothing stores and dressing rooms — into two categories according to gender. It used to be as simple as “men go here, women go there.” But with the growing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) population, the choice in using one public restroom instead of the other is more than choosing the symbol on the door with a dress or pants.
Earlier this year, Des Moines was named No. 4 on a list of America’s Most LGBT-friendly cities, but how well does our city actually accommodate its transgender population?
The little-known history of the transgender community
It used to be enough to spell out intolerance or discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color or sex. Now, phrases such as “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are also included in such policies, to ensure a wider coverage that at one time was not demanded and rarely considered.
In 2013, the University of Northern Iowa made national news when students named transgender student Steven Sanchez its homecoming queen. Selecting a homecoming king or queen typically doesn’t make headlines outside of a campus newspaper, but this was an historic moment. It was a first for the university, although a handful of other schools are now on the list of those with transgender homecoming kings or queens.
The fight for equality in the LGBT community began nearly 50 years ago, but transgender hasn’t been part of the discussion until recently.
“I think we separated out the trans community too much,” said Nate Monson, director of Iowa Safe Schools, which aims to provide safe and supportive learning environments for LGBT students. “So when we’re talking about the LGBT community, we often focus on marriage equality — which is an important aspect to the LGBT movement — however, that doesn’t include our transgender brothers and sisters. So we need to keep in mind the issues they face with discrimination or the facilities that they identify with.”
Monson said that lack of attention spreads into the LGBT community itself, adding that there is still misinformation and discrimination against the transgender population within the community.
Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa and longtime activist for LGBT rights, agrees with Monson and says the transgender community receives much less attention.
“I’ve been in this movement for a long time, and I remember when it was all about the gays,” said Red Wing. “And then the lesbians said, ‘What about us?’ And the bisexual community said, ‘There’s us, too!’ The transgender community gets much less attention, much less support.”
Since Iowa law changed to include gender identity in 2007, the number of complaints seen by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission has increased tenfold. And of the first three cases regarding public restroom usage in 2013, two transgender people won the right to use women’s restrooms in public places, while a third case to use women’s YMCA facilities was defeated.
All three cases were made by Iowans who were born male but now identify themselves as female. Jodie Jones won her case to use the women’s restroom at the Johnson County Courthouse in Iowa City, while Jessica Lynn Smalley lost her case involving the Burlington YMCA facilities.
The decisions were met with backlash from both sides, with the opposition bringing up the possibility of sex offenders using the law to their advantage and putting others in danger.
“I am not afraid of a transgender person using the bathroom I’m using,” said Red Wing. “I think that many of the responses that use that excuse are really not dealing with reality. It’s a kind of bizarre and odd response.”
Supporters of the non-discrimination laws said those claims were baseless, and the Des Moines Police Department has not seen any cases of sexual assault related to Iowa’s non-discrimination ordinance.
Some transgender and transitioning individuals, however, still claim to feel unsafe using public facilities.
“I met a high school kid — an amazing high school kid — female to male transgender individual (who) is now in college. But when I met him, he said that in his entire school career — from junior high school through his last day of senior high school — he never used the facilities,” said Red Wing. “It’s horrible, and it’s so discriminatory.”
At least 17 states and the District of Columbia have laws that ban discrimination based on gender identity.
The right to use a restroom is so basic, Red Wing said, that most people never even think about it.
“But if you’re a transitioning person, if you’re a transgender person, I bet you’re thinking about it a lot,” she said.
There are public places that have family restrooms, which, although not created for the transgender community, are perfectly fine for use by those individuals looking for a gender-free facility. But Red Wing says it is an easy fix that just isn’t happening yet.
“The law doesn’t say we need gender-free facilities,” she said. “It simply says that the person should be able to use the facility based on their gender identity.
“Look at some of the malls. They have family restrooms, they have gender-free restrooms. They weren’t built for the transgender population — they were built for a father who has to go in and diaper his child. They were built for someone who had to go in a restroom with somebody who needed a little help. But if we could do that for those populations, we should be able to do that for many more places.”
Monson agrees that change is happening, but that it is far from perfect.
“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we have to get there,” he said.
How Iowa law applies to schools and students
Based on the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and Iowa Safe Schools Law, all schools in Iowa must protect their students from discrimination and harassment. In 2007, the Iowa Civil Rights Act expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity in those protections.
But in the case of transgender students and gender-neutral facilities, it is up to each school to determine what those facilities are.
“I know there are some facilities they’ve converted to having gender-neutral facilities,” said Monson. “Not just for trans students, but because there’s a number of people who may not feel comfortable using a public restroom.”
Monson said he thinks most new educational buildings have gender-neutral restrooms, but ultimately it is up to the school.
“So currently what most schools are following — and most organizations, corporations, actually anyone in particular — they’re following Iowa Civil Rights law, which includes gender identity and education as a protected area of the civil rights code,” explained Monson.
The concept of transgender students and gender-neutral facilities wasn’t talked about much when many schools were designed and built several decades ago.
“When you think of when a lot of schools were built, the locker rooms were built in the ’70s, and they really didn’t have that consideration in mind,” said Tom Narak, a retired administrator who spent the last seven years of his career as superintendent for West Des Moines schools.
Preschools, elementary and secondary schools, community colleges, postsecondary colleges and universities and governing boards of education institutions are all covered under the Iowa Code, including public, private and religious institutions. The only exemption is for bona fide religious institutions, which can make qualifications based on religion related to a bona fide religious purpose.
“And that includes restrooms, locker rooms, athletics, extracurriculars — anything and everything under education,” explained Monson. “And gender identity is protected. That includes transgender individuals.”
School districts didn’t face many transgender issues even a decade ago. Monson said they might have received one call per year in regards to a school dealing with accommodations for a transgender student before the code was updated seven years ago.
In the 2014-2015 school year, from August to November, Iowa Safe Schools has received about 30 to 40 calls on the subject.
“What’s interesting is now that the civil rights code has been enacted for nearly eight years — again, with the addition of gender identity — we’re receiving more calls, more interest,” Monson said.
From the start of the 2014-15 school year, Iowa Safe Schools has been fielding calls nearly every day, mostly from rural schools wanting to ensure their administrators were doing everything right in terms of supporting the students.
Monson said most districts were “doing the right thing already.”
“It’s one of those things where a student moved to another district in order to come out in transition,” he explained. “So maybe at one school the student’s name is ‘Ben.’ In the new school, the student is known as ‘Kate.’ Only the school administrator and the school counselor really know.
“And it’s just amazing how much the issue has come to the forefront for schools. And they’re asking about it — they want to do what’s right for the kids, and they’re looking for resources.”
But it wasn’t always that way. Jessica Janiuk began her transition from male to female nearly 10 years ago when she was attending the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. She remembers feeling uncomfortable, and at times, unsafe, when she would try to use public restrooms.
“College was always very awkward,” said Janiuk. “I specifically chose times and locations of restrooms where I didn’t have to encounter a lot of people in the restroom, so I would try to find like single-stall restrooms or use the restroom when classes were going on so I didn’t have to worry about a ton of people being in there, just because it was uncomfortable.”
Narak went through a similar situation with a student who came out in one of his high schools. Although he was an administrator for 41 years and a superintendent at three different schools, he didn’t have the experiences until his last position when he was asked to talk to a transgender student at Valley High School.
“You know, in West Des Moines, we had a number of gay and lesbian students, and that really wasn’t, by the time I got to West Des Moines (in 2000), that wasn’t a new phenomenon for them,” Narak said. “And they really did a nice job. (Then) we had a transgender student, and it was completely new for everybody.”
The student was a freshman who was born female and made the transition to male. Narak said it was 2005 or 2006 when he became involved.
“What we were experiencing was the student felt like people weren’t respecting the wishes of him to be identified as male, and so we worked with him, worked with the mom,” said Narak.
Narak helped counselors and administrators create plans that would accommodate transgender students, including private restroom and locker room arrangements. Valley didn’t have any real gender-neutral bathrooms outside of what the faculty used, so Narak and his team decided to let the student use those facilities.
If people asked questions about the arrangement or why that student was allowed to use faculty restrooms, the principal would step in.
“Basically our principal told them, ‘If you’ve got some very important reasons why that would be a necessity (for you), let us know and we’ll deal with that,’ ” said Narak. “We tried not to make a big deal about it. The student really didn’t want to make a big deal about it.”
As for the locker room, Narak said it was not a huge issue at the time, but they did present an option for a private area for transgender students in the nurse’s office. The student was understanding that it wouldn’t work for him to use either of the regular locker rooms, and the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) guidelines state that “every student-athlete should have access to a locker room, bathroom and shower facilities in a safe, comfortable and convenient environment.”Transgender student-athletes are yet another topic coming to light more and more in school districts, as students want to play sports regardless of their gender identity.
“It’s none of (anyone else’s) business, really, what’s going on in a student’s pants,” Monson said.
Being transgender in a ‘binary’ world
Janiuk first knew she wanted to be a female when she was 5 or 6 years old, but she didn’t come out and start her transition until she was about 20, saying she suppressed it for a while before rediscovering it in her teens.
The University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire did not have gender-neutral facilities at the time she was a student, and it made her transition period much harder.
“I had some experiences during that period around between like 20 and 22 where I was kind of caught in the middle,” she explained. “And what I mean by that is…there’s this kind of awkward phase you go through where people kind of are like, ‘Wait a minute, this guy’s a girl or a boy?’ And it often makes for very uncomfortable situations, and bathrooms are the center for that.”
The university has since added gender-neutral restrooms to its campus, but Janiuk says that growing up in Wisconsin, she did not have the legal backing that people now do in Iowa, where she has lived for more than a year.
Now that she has fully transitioned, Janiuk says she has what the community refers to as “passing privilege,” and that she has significantly fewer problems when using public restrooms.
“Passing privilege essentially means that people don’t see me as a trans woman — they just see me as a woman,” Janiuk said.
But there is still a concern about safety present in her mind.
Violence has been an issue in the transgender community since the beginning, and although Janiuk never faced it herself, she said when she first transitioned she had a constant fear — even of going out in public.
“I was much more alert when I was out in public,” she said. “I liked to be out in public with someone, that way it wasn’t just me by myself.”
Janiuk remembers a time that she was asked by mall officials not to use the women’s restroom because they were not comfortable with it. She would receive strange and dirty looks from people that made her feel unwelcome.
“In some ways I feel like avoiding the public, and I know I felt that way sometimes that I would just rather spend my time at home. But that doesn’t make the community better, and it doesn’t help educate people.”
Just like how being gay is about more than just sexuality, the transgender community encompasses many different facets, which is part of why there is such a large gap in understanding. Many people think the transgender population is significantly smaller than it is, which plays into the reason why there are so few accommodations for them.
Janiuk has heard people say the transgender population is one-half of one percent of the population, but she thinks it is much larger than that, especially considering every aspect of the community.
“People view it as like, you’re either gay or you’re not; you’re either one gender or another gender. They view gender as a binary, and sexuality as a binary — like you’re either interested in men or women — when there (are) so many different sexualities, and there (are) so many different genders that it’s hard to just group us into, you know, one category or another.”
On the path to acceptance and change
Because the LGBT community has come to the forefront of societal issues in the last 30 years, it is the most recent generations who have the most experience, awareness, and perhaps even sensitivity and acceptance, to the subjects it encompasses.
Monson said it is somewhat of a generational issue when it comes to acceptance, especially of the transgender population, but Narak thinks it has more to do with experience than anything else.
There could also be some cultural issues from various generations at play, too, but Narak says — with school and education especially — people really just want to help kids feel safe, comfortable and accepted.
“Now it’s been my experience with teachers, administrators, people who work a lot with kids — the bottom line for them is they want to help them,” he said.
“I think some people think that people are trying to force their beliefs on others, and they’re not,” said Narak. What this is all about is how can you best help students, and I think most people, like myself, want to help — and they do come around. They might need a little help getting there, but it’s been my experience they do come around.”
Red Wing says it will take education and more of the transgender community coming out to get the ball rolling on acceptance throughout society.
“Once you know somebody, once there’s a face and a voice and a story to what you think about when you think about a transgender individual, then you can’t stereotype them anymore,” said Red Wing. “It’s somebody you might admire or respect or like, even — so how can you then put them in that kind of caricature?”
Janiuk said there are many transgender people who are afraid to come out or think they shouldn’t be open after they have transitioned because there is no reason to, but she says it is counterproductive to the cause.
“I think that attitude is kind of suggesting that there’s something to be ashamed of, and we really shouldn’t be ashamed of who we are,” she said. “So I think that in our own community, we need to be more open and forward about who we are.”
As a leader in LGBT activism for many years, Red Wing says she has watched society move forward with sexual orientation and points out that Iowa was fourth in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage. But there is still work to be done.
“All of our laws are pretty good — the transgender community and the issues they face are a little different,” Red Wing said. “And I think it will take some time for mainstream America — mainstream Iowa — to really begin to understand. And I think once they do, we’ll move quickly. But we’re not quite there yet.”
Will we ever see a day when the LGBT community is widely accepted? And what about the transgender population specifically? Janiuk has hope that it will, but she says it will take a lot of work from the transgender community to get there.
“Really it’s about raising awareness,” she said. “Because I can’t tell you how many people, even now with the awareness that has happened in the last decade, most of the people that I encounter have never met a trans person before.”
The solution, Janiuk agrees with Red Wing, is about educating people on what it means to be transgender and helping them get past the segregation of what they don’t really know.
While Janiuk does encourage transgender people to come out and be proud just like she did, she wants to be clear that it doesn’t mean it is anyone else’s business.
“When people ask about…who we are, we should be open that we’re trans — but that doesn’t mean people should be asking us very personal questions about what’s between our legs.
“But we should at least be open and out there, because…the more people that meet us and see that we’re just like everybody else, it reduces that fear and that sense that we’re different. And we really aren’t any different than anybody else.” CV