Coy Mathis, a six-year-old transgender girl in Colorado, has been told she cannot use the girls’ bathroom at school.
She began publicly identifying as a girl midway through her kindergarten year but, according to her parents, has identified as female for as long as she could express herself.
Yet she was born with male sex organs.
And that’s the problem.
The Fountain-Fort Carlson School District, where Coy is a student, sent her parents a letter last December saying they had to take “into account not only Coy, but other students in the building, their parents and the future impact a boy with male genitals using a girls’ bathroom would have as Coy grew older.”
The letter referenced a future where those at the school were likely to become increasingly uncomfortable with her use of the girls’ bathroom, “as his male genitals develop along with the rest of his body.”
Coy’s parents were told their daughter would have to use the boys’ bathroom, the gender-neutral staff bathroom or the nurse’s bathroom. They are concerned that this difference in treatment would make her vulnerable to bullying.
Where do transgender people fit in a world that sometimes divides into all-male and all-female spaces?
Bathroom issues aside, living as female and living as male are and have been, across cultures, two quite different experiences. It can be liberating to have spaces where each gender can explore those experiences among others who understand. It can be empowering to have spaces where there is lessened pressure to perform one’s expected gender role, thus freeing people to express themselves in different ways.
In theory, all genders would benefit from these spaces. Transgender people no doubt feel the pressure of gender-based social roles just as acutely, if not more so, than those whose genitals match their genders. Why not open all-male or all-female spaces to them?
If we don’t, we might say it’s because transgender people have not experienced being male or female in the same way as those who have always been one or the other have. A person who was raised male and transitions to female, for instance, has had the opportunity to experience male societal privilege in a way that someone who has always been treated as female never will.
But, this argument doesn’t apply in the same way to a six-year-old (especially not one whose transgender identity has always been known and accepted—debate over the causes of this identity aside).
Is it all about the genitals?
If we still want to exclude children like Coy from single-gender spaces for the gender they identify with, it really does look like it is all about the genitals.
My first naïve thought upon reading this story was to wonder what impact anyone’s genitals could possibly have on anyone else’s bathroom experience. I’ve always thought it odd that there should have to be separate male and female bathrooms anyway. It’s not like we’re parading around naked in there. Couldn’t there just be a separate “urinal room” for those who want to use one, and let everyone else use the bathroom they want to use?
My second thought was that that would absolutely not work.
There’s a power differential between male genitals and female genitals. Humanity has a long history of male genitals being used and seen as weapons. In the minds of many people, the need to provide protection from that possibility overrides concerns about practicality.
It might also override concerns about discrimination based on gender. I have to wonder if this is part (though certainly not all) of what’s going on in Coy’s case.
What should we, as fair-minded and compassionate people, do?
This is the question that’s been on my mind for the past week.
I would never say that those who perceive single-gender safe space to be predicated on an absence of opposite-gender genitals are wrong. There’s been too long a history of gender-based violence, particularly of females, to ignore the need for this kind of safety.
I also want to see children like Coy treated with compassion and sensitivity.
Right now, her parents have opted to home-school her while a legal battle with the district goes forward. They have filed a complaint with the Colorado Office of Civil Rights. The outcome remains to be seen.
I hope we’re paying attention.
Jayleigh Lewis is a writer who will one day write a book. She currently works as a spiritual advisor to college students as well as a freelance editor. She has a dream that one day humans will remember the integral role ceremony has in our lives and will learn to create sacred spaces within which intention may manifest. Learn more about her dream and read more of her words on her blog.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel