Government & Politics

Transgender restroom bill in Kansas alarms LGBT student advocates

Caleb Bishop (right), Alaura Custard (left) and Brenna Hanisee, all students at Olathe North, prepare signs for a protest they will attend Friday at the Kansas Capitol in Topeka. Kansas lawmakers recently introduced a measure to require transgender students at public schools and universities to use restrooms that match their gender at birth, and student LGBT advocates in the state are crying foul. .
Caleb Bishop (right), Alaura Custard (left) and Brenna Hanisee, all students at Olathe North, prepare signs for a protest they will attend Friday at the Kansas Capitol in Topeka. Kansas lawmakers recently introduced a measure to require transgender students at public schools and universities to use restrooms that match their gender at birth, and student LGBT advocates in the state are crying foul. . rsugg@kcstar.com

A transgender restroom bill aimed at public schools and universities recently landed in the Kansas Legislature, and alarmed and offended LGBT student advocates are lashing out at the proposal.

The bill would require transgender students to use restrooms that match their gender at birth. A section of the bill that’s particularly disturbing, LGBT advocates say, is a provision many are calling a “bounty hunt.”

Under the proposal, students “who encounter a person of the opposite sex” in restroom and locker room facilities could sue the school for $2,500 plus damages for emotional and physical harm.

Sex is defined in the bill as “determined by a person’s chromosomes and is identified at birth by a person’s anatomy.”

“That’s a $2,500 bounty, basically,” said Harrison Baker, a University of Kansas junior and member of the KU Student Senate. A senate resolution he authored opposing the bill was approved recently by a 45-2 vote.

“It’s just another way to put down the trans community, to dehumanize them,” said Caleb Bishop, an Olathe North High School sophomore who identifies as male.

Bishop is helping organize a protest by high school students at the Capitol on Friday, which coincides with a “Day of Silence” national event intended to draw attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools.

The bills — identical measures in the House and Senate — were introduced late in this legislative session and aren’t slated for debate during the remainder of the session. Lawmakers could reintroduce the bills next year.

The issue of gender identity and bathrooms has become a contentious topic in the heated-up culture wars over LGBT rights here and across the country.

North Carolina has drawn national attention with its new law that requires people to use bathrooms in schools and government buildings that match their “biological sex.”

Similar measures have been introduced in more than a dozen states. In Missouri, a bill introduced earlier in the year has not advanced. South Dakota’s governor last month vetoed a transgender bathroom bill for schools.

The legislation is seen by critics as part of wave of anti-LGBT proposals pushed vigorously by social conservatives, including “religious freedom” bills that picked up steam after the U.S. Supreme Court last year legalized same-sex marriage.

In Missouri, a proposed religious freedom amendment to the state constitution, which would allow certain individuals and business citing religious beliefs to deny services to same-sex couples, has sparked an uproar, including condemnation from some of the state’s largest companies.

Last week, Mississippi’s governor signed a religious freedom measure that sparked a backlash from across the country, including bans by other states on non-essential, government-funded travel to Mississippi.

The bills introduced in Kansas, SB 513 and HB 2737, are titled the Student Physical Privacy Act. They direct public schools and universities to designate multiperson restrooms, locker rooms and shower facilities for one gender only and require students to use facilities that match their sex at birth.

Allowing students of different sexes to use such facilities would create “unsafe situations” and “potential embarrassment, shame and psychological injury to students,” according to the measures.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican known for her staunch social conservatism, said the rules are needed to protect students’ privacy and safety. Students shouldn’t be placed in the uncomfortable situation when “someone of the opposite gender just walks in.”

“I think any child or young adult has a right to have their privacy protected when they’re in various stages of undress,” she said.

Courts have recognized a bodily privacy right, she said, the right not to be viewed unclothed by someone of the opposite sex, she said.

Asked about concerns that allowing lawsuits for monetary awards could become a “bounty hunt,” Pilcher-Cook said the aim of the bill is not for students to target each other. Any such concerns about the proposal would be addressed in the committee hearing process, she said.

“We certainly would not want that kind of behavior,” she said.

But critics of the proposal said that rather than protecting privacy, the “bounty” provision would prompt privacy violations.

Brandon Haddock with the LGBT Resource Center at Kansas State University questioned how someone using the restroom would discover that a person of the opposite sex were there.

“They’d have to be looking,” Haddock said.

Even without the “bounty” provision, the bill is a mean-spirited measure looking for a problem, LGBT advocates said.

Baker, who is studying psychology and human sexuality at KU, said the language in the bill makes it sound as if transgender students are somehow a physical and psychological threat to others.

“They’re making being transgender and using the restroom into a crime,” he said.

Marcus Pepperdine, a KU senior who represents the LGBT group Spectrum KU in the Student Senate, said the proposal doesn’t respect people’s gender identity.

“There’s no reason for the bill,” he said. “Transgender people just want to use the bathroom like everybody else.”

Bishop and Alaura Custard, also an Olathe North sophomore, are planning a peaceful protest of the bill Friday with other area high school students on the steps of the Capitol. The Legislature is in recess until late in the month, but April 15 is the Day of Silence, a national student event to bring attention to bullying and harassment of LGBT students.

“We just want them to know we’re not going to tolerate this,” Custard said.

Custard, who isn’t gay or transgender, said she’s a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance at school and hates the idea of discrimination.

“No matter our differences, people should be treated equally,” she said. “Instead of shaming each other, I think we should accept that we’re not all the same and embrace each other.”

Bishop said he was female at birth and identifies as male, using he/him pronouns and Caleb for his first name. While he is socially transitioning, Bishop said, he’s not at the stage where he feels comfortable using male restrooms at school.

“But to take that away from other people is not OK,” he said.

Matt Sharp, legal counsel for the conservative advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, said the group is providing legal guidance nationally on the issue. The laws and bills on the issue recognize a fundamental privacy right and aren’t discriminatory, he said.

Under the measure, including the one in Kansas, students who don’t want to use facilities of their birth gender would be provided the accommodation of a single-stall restroom or changing room.

“That ensures every single student has their privacy and dignity maintained while they’re at school,” Sharp said.

Pilcher-Cook said she has heard from constituents and from residents in other parts of the state who want to protect their children’s privacy, although she said no school officials had contacted her asking for the legislation.

Some people are “very concerned for the privacy of their students,” she said.

Tom Witt, executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, said there’s no indication the public has asked for the legislation and all indications are that schools are handling the matter.

“Schools are dealing with this on a case-by-case basis and are not having any problems,” he said.

Kristi McNerlin, executive director of communications for the Blue Valley school district, said that concerns about gender issues and restroom facilities are dealt with in meetings with families.

“When requests are made we talk to the family and work through it,” McNerlin said. “We’ve been able to handle situations on a per-family basis.”

Erin Dugan, assistant superintendent for the Olathe school district, said there’s no set rule about how to accommodate students who are transgender or who are dealing with gender-identity issues.

Some have opted for single-use facilities for bathroom use and for changing clothes; some use the nurse’s office restroom; and some choose facilities based on their gender identity, she said.

Dugan said she was unaware of objections from other students. She’s answered a few calls from parents with questions, and they have been satisfied that students have options if they feel uncomfortable with other students’ choices, she said.

“The response from students and staff has been of great understanding and tolerance,” Dugan said.

Edward M. Eveld: 816-234-4442, @EEveld

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