Gender-neutral locker room at Long Beach school in Limbo

They collected research results for almost two years. They listened to the students. And in the end, Long Beach Unified School District administrators came to a firm conclusion: Now was the time for a new kind of locker room, one that would provide privacy for all students in a space that has long been a source of teenage anxiety dread.

Instead of the traditional separate areas for boys and girls, Wilson High School’s new water sports center should have private cabins large enough for students to both shower and change. The goal was to ensure safe access to facilities for all students, regardless of gender identity or expression.

The plan was first presented to the Board of Education in August 2020, when parents and educators were primarily concerned with whether students would be able to return to campus due to the pandemic. In a city where gender-neutral bathrooms were already commonplace, there was no vocal opposition to the locker room concept.

But in November 2021, the far-right news outlet Breitbart took up the issue to praise it a grenade against the left in the Kulturkampf. In an article titled “Parents Alarmed as California High School Unveils ‘All Gender’ Locker Room,” the author wrote that parents feared boys and girls would be in “different states of undressing” in the locker room together and the “possibility of sex attack.”

The opposition kicked up a few days later when a A small group of community members spoke out against the dressing room at a December 1 board meeting. They continued to rail against the project at subsequent meetings, and the news agencies picked up the story.

On February 2, the district announced it was pausing the locker room project to gather more community input.

Although the discourse in Long Beach was peaceful compared to the venom played out at school board meetings across the country, it reflects a national trend of a Public increasingly clashing with school officials on issues such as LGBTQ rights, vaccination requirements and curricula. And this is happening against the backdrop of an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at restricting the rights of transgender youth.

Long Beach Unified Assistant Superintendent Tiffany Brown said she sees a connection between widespread anti-transgender rhetoric and opposition to gender-neutral institutions in her district. The students supported the project with an overwhelming majority. “They say, ‘Why shouldn’t we do that?'” she said.

In 2013, California became the first state to legislate the right of transgender students to choose their bathroom or locker room based on their gender identity. Three years later, the state required all single-occupancy public restrooms to be gender-neutral by the spring of 2017. While advocates say this was a step in the right direction — and helped curb some of the physical and verbal abuse that many trans children endured in bathrooms — many schools complied with the law by allowing students to to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office.

But students who haven’t yet had to share their gender identity with classmates have often been outed for using those bathrooms, advocates said. And many found this quick fix stigmatizing, as if their desire to go to the bathroom in peace was a medical issue. Some tried avoiding the toilet for an entire school day, resulting in urinary tract infections. A 2019 national survey by education organization GLSEN found that 45% of LGBTQ students avoid using single-sex school toilets and 44% avoid using changing rooms because they feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

Such was the case with Amber Va, who came out as trans in 2018 while attending Long Beach Polytechnic High School. When she used the girls’ toilet, her classmates would whisper and shoot her dirty eyes. She would stand up for herself and try to work it out with them. Some were receptive, but the mental and emotional gymnastics of having to debate their humanity was exhausting them, so Va began using the office bathroom. Because it was in the center of the school and far from most of the other buildings, she had to run to get it back on time for class. Often she didn’t.

Va told the school administration about her experience. “They didn’t want to believe me,” she said. So the teenager started an online petition to create more gender-neutral restrooms in the neighborhood. She received support from the LGBTQ Center Long Beach and the American Civil Liberties Union. Va organized a task force of trans and gender non-conforming students who wanted to see their campuses create more gender-neutral institutions, as districts like LA Unified had done. The group spent months speaking to school principals and parent-teacher organizations in the district.

As of January 2020, their advocacy as a district had borne fruit quietly open toilets with multiple stalls at three schools. There were many questions, Brown said, but little to no opposition and press at the time.

The district now requires that all new school buildings include gender-neutral locker rooms and bathrooms, and encourages middle and high schools undergoing renovations to consider installing them.

Wilson’s Aquatics Center was the first new facility to be built since that shift. The district conducted locker room design focus groups with 60 students at four high schools. Participants, regardless of their gender identity, consistently reported feeling uncomfortable in the communal showers and changing areas. Many brought up body image and bullying. They wanted private stalls, good locks, and supervisors to monitor student behavior.

Wilson High’s locker room design reflects this feedback. Each cabin includes a shower, changing area, bench seat and storage area. Partitions between each cubicle would reach almost to the ceiling and floor, and waist-high lockers would allow coaches to easily monitor the space.

The Education Council has not yet scheduled a vote on the design of the changing rooms. Even after the Breitbart story, opponents spoke at every board meeting in December and January and didn’t stop until officials announced the project was on pause.

Robert Hamilton, the father of a sophomore swimmer at Wilson, accused Lakewood High’s all-gender restroom of becoming a “cesspool” where students had sex and took drugs. The district told the Times those claims were unfounded.

“By building student locker rooms you are intentionally putting our children, especially my daughter, at … much greater risk of sexual assault,” he said, later adding, “This matter is actually going to cost some of you your reelections if you ‘ We are unwilling or unable to protect the health and safety of our children.”

Scott Rice, who has no children in the district but graduated from Wilson University in 1985, said the locker rooms were “ridiculous and dangerous for children.” Rice said he has contacted USA Swimming, teachers, coaches and his local council to complain. At the end of his speech, he shouted into the microphone.

“We need to get a handle on this project and get real input, not dictation from a bright group,” he said, tapping the lectern twice with his knuckles before descending.

Members of the Wilson swimming community, including three students and two coaches, said so The cabins wouldn’t be large enough to change into “tech suits,” which are high-compression swimsuits that require two people to don. Two members of the girls’ swim team said they wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing a locker room with teenagers.

“We will lose winners outside of our district if we stick to this plan. It’s guaranteed, I’m hearing parents talking about it already,” said assistant coach Katie Rowe.

Some parents requested a gender-neutral changing area alongside the traditional boys’ and girls’ rooms. Such a separation of institutions could have a stigmatizing effect, the district countered.

LGBTQ students have been conspicuously absent from public comment. Christopher Covington, an organizer at the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network who has worked closely with Long Beach students on the issue, said that many of the teens whose advocacy led to these talks now “don’t want to be the face of the campaign . “

Recounting experiences of harassment and bullying to strangers is emotionally draining under the best of circumstances, Covington said. But these students have now lived through a pandemic. They struggle to keep their grades and try to get into college. “They don’t have the skill or interest in a very argumentative conversation that drains their energy,” Covington said. And they are witnessing an unprecedented nationwide attack on their rights.

In 2021, a record-breaking 149 bills were introduced in state legislatures that would limit the rights of trans people, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. By the end of February, 159 such bills had been proposed in 2022. Most of these bills aim to ban trans children from participating in sports teams that match their gender identity, or to criminalize gender-affirming childcare.

In the Chino Valley Unified School District — just 35 miles east of Los Angeles — the school board in November narrowly defeated a resolution that would have barred transgender students from using bathrooms and locker rooms of their identified gender, in violation of the state education law.

Tony Thurmond, California’s superintendent for public education, announced plans in November to form a committee of students, educators, policymakers and stakeholders to explore ways to expand the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms in K-12 schools. Thurmond said he first became aware that such access was lacking in October, when students on an LGBTQ History Month panel said they went all day without using a toilet because they felt unsafe. The Chino resolution increased his concern.

Carla Peña, professional development manager at Gender Spectrum, an organization that helps schools create gender-sensitive environments, said the increasing politicization of trans and non-binary youth has made it unsafe to speak out. “Students and educators will be much less likely to commit to these institutions in this climate,” said Pena.

More than two-thirds of LGBTQ youth say recent government efforts to restrict the rights of transgender and non-binary people have had a negative impact on their mental health. according to a survey released by the Trevor Project in January.

Ultimately, Covington said, this is a public debate between adults.

“The things we want to see overnight are going to take years,” Covington said. “Personally, I believe the district will make the right decision and move forward with the plan.” Gender-neutral locker room at Long Beach school in Limbo

Huynh Nguyen

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