Steinberg: Inside the girls’ locker room

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My wife and I, sitting on the 7:34 into the city Tuesday, immersed in our his-and-hers copies of the Sun-Times, both on the same page, at the same moment, reading the same article, headlined “LOCKED OUT,” a story about Palatine School District 211 refusing to comply with Department of Education demands that it allow a transgender teen, transitioning from boy to girl, unrestricted use of the girls’ locker room at one of the district’s high schools.

District 211 students are allowed to use locker rooms of the sex they identify with — itself perhaps a shock to those not been paying attention to the whirl of cultural change — but are required to use a curtained area to disrobe and shower. One transgendered student found this stigmatizing and sued. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is siding with her. The school district is standing its ground.

“This is a case where I’m inclined to side with the school district,” my wife said.

“Maybe,” I replied. “But wouldn’t the same rationale keep lesbian students out of the girls’ locker room?”


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No surprise that my wife and I each approached this issue from our own gender viewpoints. She assumed the concern was teenage girls being exposed to the sight of the equipment of this female-in-mind-but-not-yet-in-anatomy transgender teen. While I assumed the problem was allowing someone who is physically a boy, despite her aspirations otherwise, into the girls’ locker room, where she might nevertheless ogle her classmates.

Not the most accurate view of transgenderism, perhaps. But this is a new world we’ve sailed into, and we should expect a bit of blinking surprise as the new scenery clicks into place. I don’t think that makes me a hater.

It’s an astounding debate to be having. If acceptance of gays has been swift, on the glacial scale used to measure progress for women and blacks, then the shift in society’s view toward transgendered individuals is doubly astounding. We seem to have leapt overnight from “Boys Don’t Cry” contempt to District 211 jumping through gender hoops and the feds threatening to withhold millions of dollars because it isn’t high enough.

Two conflicting interests are in seemingly irresolvable conflict here: the desire of privacy among the cisgender teens, i.e. those content with the gender biology assigned them, and transgender teens who want to be waved into every corner of the locker room with no rude attention drawn to any inconvenient anatomical features.

<small><strong> Dan Cates</strong></small>

Dan Cates

“The district really has worked diligently and mindfully on serving the needs of all our students, including transgendered students,” said District 211 Superintendent Dan Cates, noting that the district has been scrupulous about adjusting to students’ needs.

“If a transgendered student comes to us, we don’t hesitate to change their name, or change their gender within our system,” he said. “Many districts are struggling even with bathroom access, which is not an issue with us, because we are able to provide some privacy.”

“Privacy” seems the key concept here. Boys-becoming-girls can use the girls’ locker room, but discreetly, behind curtains provided for that purpose. The district expects “commitment from any transgender student to simply observe an individual measure of privacy,” Cates said. “We believe transgender students would prefer privacy areas.”

“Wouldn’t all students prefer privacy?” I replied. I know two teens — no names please — who went through four years at Glenbrook North High School without ever taking a shower, to my knowledge, a practice which, I am told, is not uncommon. Maybe the result of this delicate matter will be that, in trying to accommodate exceptional students, the long loathed, strip-down-for-your-classmates locker room routine will be banished to history, along with naked swimming and posture lessons.

“That’s exactly what we believe may come out of this,” said Cates. “Measures of privacy allow developing teenagers to choose for themselves whether or not to use privacy areas … safeguarding matters for transgender teens we believe will be helpful to students in our locker room.”

That’s how it usually works out. What seems like it might be a burden done for a few ends up benefiting all. While I’m inclined toward kindness toward any teen struggling with sexual identity, their fervent desire to stride easily into the girls’ locker room and be welcomed as one of the gang is still, at this cultural moment, constrained if they also possess a penis. Like it or not, society is going to teach them that lesson; they might as well learn it in high school.

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