In a decision being hailed as monumental in the struggle for transgender rights, the Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled Monday that a 6-year-old transgender girl, Coy Mathis, must be permitted to use the girls’ bathroom in her school.
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“This is a watershed moment for transgender civil rights,” Michael Silverman, Mathis’s lawyer and the executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, told Yahoo! Shine. “We’ve said from the start that Coy deserves the same respect, dignity, and opportunity that every other student deserves.”
The decision stems from a formal discrimination complaint filed in February by Mathis’s parents, Kathryn and Jeremy, against the Eagleside Elementary School's Fountain-Fort Carson School District. Although Mathis, who was born a boy, had been deemed transgender by a psychologist at age 4, the school had barred her from using the girls’ restroom, instead offering her use of the nurse’s or teachers’ bathrooms. But setting her apart in that way, her family contended, was sure to set her up for frequent harassment and bullying, and they began homeschooling her.
The school district, meanwhile, believed it had “acted reasonably and fairly,” said its lawyer, William Kelly Dude, in a statement at the time. That position was reiterated Monday in a new statement from the school district that Dude provided to Shine.
"We are disappointed with this opinion because it not only failed to address conflicts between statutory and regulatory provisions raised by the district but failed to appreciate the unique circumstances that school districts must consider when faced with such situations," read the statement, in part. It added, "The district is conferring with legal representation to determine next steps in this process." Appealing the decision is an option for the school district.
In its 16-page decision on the matter, Civil Rights Division director Steven Chavez wrote that the school, in its separating out of Mathis, “demonstrates a lack of understanding of the complexity of transgender issues” and “creates a barrier where none should exist.” Further, it stated, “Telling [Mathis] that she must disregard her identity while performing one of the most essential human functions constitutes severe and pervasive treatment, and creates an environment that is objectively and subjectively hostile, intimidating or offensive.”
It was the first ruling in the nation holding that transgender students must be allowed to use bathrooms that “match who they are,” and also “the most strongly worded, positive decision” in regards to the issue, Silverman noted.
Kathryn expressed her relief over the decision in a statement made through the TLDEF. “Schools should not discriminate against their students, and we are thrilled that Coy can return to school and put this behind her,” she said. “All we ever wanted was for Coy’s school to treat her the same as other little girls. We are extremely happy that she now will be treated equally.” When Kathryn told Coy about the decision, she told the Gazette of Colorado Springs, “her eyes got all bright and she jumped up and down and said 'So, this means I can go to school and make friends again.'"
Eagleside may not get to put the ruling into action just yet, though, as the Mathises, since filing the complaint, have relocated to Aurora to be near medical care for Coy’s sister, who is severely disabled. (Coy and her sister are two of a set of triplets; she also has both an older sister and a younger sister.) But the decision, Silverman noted, has weight enough to cover the bathroom rights of Coy and any other transgender student in any school, public or private, across the state of Colorado.
For transgendered youth and adults, public bathrooms are very often a main source of anxiety, stress and harassment. On Monday, the results of a study released by the Williams Institute, a national think tank on gender, sexual identity and public policy at UCLA Law, showed that 70 percent of nearly 100 survey respondents had experienced verbal harassment, assault, and being denied access to public restrooms. In addition, 54 percent of respondents reported having some sort of physical problem, from dehydration to kidney infections, because of their avoidance of public restrooms.
“Findings from this study suggest that transgender people’s experiences with gendered restrooms are contributing to this population’s minority stress,” noted study author Jody Herman.
To help combat that, 16 states, including Colorado, currently prohibit discrimination against transgender students in public schools. And, while the Fountain-Fort Carson district does have the right to appeal the state of Colorado's decision—a move that could push the case into the court system—Silverman said he would be surprised by such a move.
“Because Coy and her family have moved away from the district, there is no reason for the school district to appeal,” he said. “To do so would only show that they had a bone to pick with transgender students.”
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