TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Texans Spar Over Transgender Bathrooms

FORT WORTH, Texas — On Tuesday, the first scorching day of a Texas spring, hundreds stood in line in the late afternoon sun, waiting to enter the meeting hall of the Fort Worth School Board. The impassioned throng was the largest in more than three decades of school board meetings here, officials said.

The issue: school district guidelines intended to accommodate the needs of  transgender students.

“I was a 10- to 18-year-old boy myself,” said Beau Glenn, 58, an opponent. “If you provide me with an opportunity to go into a girls’ bathroom, nothing good can come of it. If we need three sets of bathrooms, let’s build them.”

Standing next to him was Fort Worth music teacher Robert Byrd, who supported the guidelines that he said allowed “everyone to be respected and safe.”

“So many transgender kids have problems at home. School can be a safe place,” Byrd said. “If you can prevent a suicide, that’s good.”

Little matter that the controversy involved what school officials called a “clarification” of policies on the books since 2012. As the national firestorm over a recent North Carolina law — banning local authorities from instituting such policies and requiring people to use bathrooms based upon their gender at birth — illustrates, the transgender issue is one that inspires high passions. Tuesday in Fort Worth was one of the first times citizens came together to debate it publicly.

The controversy was brought to high boil this week by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who Monday called for the resignation of Fort Worth Schools Superintendent Kent Scribner, who signed clarifications to the policy in April. Under the guidelines transgender students are allowed to use the bathroom and locker room of their choice. Teachers are to address them by the pronoun that reflects the students’ gender identity. Staff are to protect students’ privacy about decisions to transition from one gender to another. And employees who do not comply with the rules could face discipline.

“I’m asking [Scribner] and those three members of his executive team, I’m calling for their resignations,” Patrick told Dallas’s WFAA 8 (ABC). “We want a 15-year-old boy full of vivid vigor that every 15-year-old boy has walking into the girls’ bathroom? The superintendent is so irresponsible to do this that he needs to step down.”

Scribner, who heads the 87,000 student district, refused to resign.

On Tuesday, as the throngs gathered in one part of the school board complex, Patrick, who traveled from the state capitol in Austin, was holding forth at a news conference in another, threatening legislative or legal action if district did not repeal the guidelines. He accused the superintendent of “social engineering” several times. Responding to  a question about what kinds of accommodations he would support for transgender students, he said he had worked extensively “with disabled students.”

“There are strong feelings on both sides, and these complicated issues are not handled well by press conferences and social media posts,” Scribner told the crowd. “I respect the lieutenant governor’s opinion, but I also respectfully disagree. The guidelines do not say, nor would we ever, indiscriminately send boys into girls’ restrooms nor send girls into boys’ restrooms.”

In a public forum that went on for more than an hour, boisterous applause greeted speakers from both sides, who were roughly equal in number. Board members and Scribner did not reply.

“Gender is not determined by the genitals. It is determined by the brain,” said one speaker, who said she has worked with more than 500 transgender people as a counselor. “Being transgender is not a choice or an illness or a character flaw. For many, it’s a matter of life and death.”

Several transgender people also spoke about having been subject to bullying and harassment.

Opponents criticized Scribner and the board for a lack of transparency.

“Retract this until we have better public comment,” Malikk Austin said. “Let’s not bully the parents.”

Bo French, a local conservative activist, said his informal poll showed that the guidelines were wildly unpopular among the people of Fort Worth.

“You each will have a lot of explaining to do in your districts,” he said.

Last to speak was Joel Burns, who as a Fort Worth City Council member in 2010 received national attention for his comments about the suicide rate among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

“I ask you, ‘What would you give to save the life of one Fort Worth ISD student?’” Burns said on Tuesday.

Assistant Superintendent Michael Steinert said the recent action did not constitute a change in district policy but added written specifics and educational material.

“The district requires all personnel to acknowledge the gender identify that each student consistently and uniformly asserts,” the guidelines say. “No medical or mental health diagnosis or treatment is required.”

The guidelines go on to say that “if other students feel uncomfortable sharing a restroom with a transgender student or if a student has a need or desire for increased privacy, the district must allow student access to a single stall restroom, a gender neutral restroom or the opportunity to visit the facility when other students are not present.”

Steinert said that the Fort Worth controversy was probably inspired by others across the nation. “The narrative didn’t start here,” Steinert said. “That narrative started in other parts of the country, and we’ve borrowed it here.”

School Board member Tobi Jackson said the school district always has tried to accommodate students who feel uncomfortable, allowing them to change or use the restroom in the nurse’s offices or teachers’ lounges. “The good news is that all these people are here because we love our kids and want what’s best for them.”

Standing in the sun before the board meeting, Katie Sherrod said the controversy was mostly a matter of politics.

“Our lieutenant governor is blatantly pandering to the worst elements, dredging up fear-based ignorance, all for the sake of getting votes,” said Sherrod, a filmmaker and writer.

Jim DeLong, 66, disagreed.

“My kids are grown, but I probably wouldn’t let them come to a public school if they had that policy,” he said in the meeting hall Tuesday. “I think it opens doors to people who are not transgender. I think there would be more abuse of it than it would help transgender kids. And in this country, it’s almost like the minorities are getting more rights than the majority.”

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