Debating transgender rights in schools

7:55 PM, Apr 29, 2010   |    comments
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DEXTER, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Rick Bilodeau has a close relationship with his two children, Gabbie and Corbin. He is not afraid to answer tough questions about topics like sexual orientation or gender identity.

But when he heard that the Maine Human Rights Commission was suggesting schools let girls who identify as boys use the boys' bathroom, and vice versa, he felt that was going too far.

"I don't have anything against that lifestyle just, I just feel that if you're a man, anatomically a man, you go to the men's room," Bilodeau said. "And that's how I would like it in the schools with my kids and what not."

Attorney Melissa Hewey works closely with Maine schools on the issue. She says the law doesn't currently require special accomodations for anyone except people with disabilities.

"The human rights act says that you can't discriminate people based on sexual orientation, which includes gender preferences." Hewey said. "But there's a big difference between discriminating against them and providing accomodations."

Hewey represented the Orono school district in a case that went before the Maine Human Rights Commission in 2009. The district asked a male-to-female transgender child to use a separate, unisex bathroom. The school said it was the only way to guarantee the student would be protected from harrassment. The Human Rights Commission ruled that forcing the child to use a separate bathroom was discrimination. Hewey says districts need to be allowed some flexibility, so they can meet the specific needs of the students in their schools.

"I think that's it's important to note that there are schools around the state that have transgendered students who use the bathroom with which they identify, and no one knows it, and that works out seamlessly" Hewey pointed out. "So sometimes it can work and sometimes it can't."

Michael Heath is president of the American Family Association of Maine. He says the proposed guidance doesn't just go too far. He calls it propaganda.

"We're being pursuaded to believe things about gender that just aren't true," Heath said. "If a woman is born a woman we can tell that from biology and we don't need to create a society where people are encouraged, if they begin to think for emotional reasons or because they're thinking a certain way, that they are the opposite gender."

Clinical social worker Cheryl Daly has spent more than a decade counselling transgender people and has worked with some who have tried to suppress their gender identities.

"It can be isolating, it can cause depressive symptomology, it can be marginalizing, and it can come out in a number of ways" Daly told NEWS CENTER.

Claire Folsom was born male, but lives life as a woman. She says the proposed guidance will help other kids who are going through what she went through when she was young.

"They have an opportunity that I didn't even know could have existed when I was in middle or high school," Folsom said. "I didn't even know there were words for how I felt. I didn't even know how I felt because I didn't have anything to compare it to. I just felt wrong."

Rick Bilodeau wants to make sure people think about how all children will be affected. He worries that the guidance from the Human Rights Commission will only draw unneeded attention to the issue of transgender youth, potentially prompting fears and concerns in the other children.

"How does that make my son or my daughter feel?" Bilodeau asked. "That's what I'm saying is you have to look at both sides."

The Maine Human Rights Commission decided earlier this month not to hold public hearings on the proposed guidelines, as it originally planned. The commission is going to spend more time discussing the draft and possibly make some changes. Then it will decide the best way to seek input from the public.

As far as that case in Orono is concerned, the transgender child's family and the Maine Human Rights Commission filed suit against the school. That case is currently pending in Penobscot County Superior Court. The child no longer attends school in that district.


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