This is how change happens.
After a lifetime of isolation and silence, someone finds the courage to say what’s bothering them, and someone else says “hey, that’s my story too.”
Individuals find their voices, tell their secrets and realize they aren’t alone and that their pain isn’t all their fault after all. And if telling their truth means challenging an assumption as basic as the either/or model of gender, then the world will have to deal with it.
Then a few artists and celebrities add their voices to the chorus — Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner — and pretty soon everyone is talking about something most people were uncomfortable even thinking about before. Their stories titillate many and inspire a few.
That’s how a boy who doesn’t feel like a boy, or a girl who knows she’s not really a girl, finds the courage to tell the principal about how awful it is to use the wrong school bathroom.
Middle school is tough for almost everyone; a time when hormones and social pressure and insecurity collide — nowhere more violently than the bathroom. Puberty is awkward for every kid — especially if you’re a kid whose gender identity doesn’t match the symbol on the bathroom door.
The girls room wasn’t right for Brandon Adams when he came out as transgender at 14, so he went to the principal of his Framingham, Massachusetts school. He was told he could use a special, gender-neutral bathroom, but that made things worse, as his classmates ridiculed him, calling him a “freak” and a “tranny.” He stopped drinking water, trying to make it through the day without needing the bathroom at all, and that led to headaches and dehydration.
The school eventually relented and let Brandon use the boys’ bathroom. He’s at Framingham High now, where he feels accepted for who he is, not just in the bathroom but everywhere else.
If it took courage for a transgender kid to take his bathroom complaint to the school principal, it took even more for Brandon to tell his story to a panel of state legislators, a full media contingent and an audience of activists on both sides of what has become the most contentious issue of the year. He testified in favor of a bill prohibiting discrimination against transgender individuals in public accommodations, including bathrooms and locker rooms.
The legislation expands on a bill passed in 2011 prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in housing, employment and education. The current bill has been approved by the Senate and is expected to come up for a vote in the House this week.
This is how change happens. Individuals demand it, the culture adjusts to it — and then legislatures and courts write it into law.
Change first came to workplace when bathrooms came indoors and when women started working in New England factories. In 1887, in the same building where Brandon testified, lawmakers made Massachusetts the first state to require “separate and distinct waterclosets, earthclosets or privies” plainly designated for each sex.
Other states followed in their own due time. Change happens unevenly. There are always some people with their feet on the accelerator and some hitting the brakes. The balance of political power between them varies from place to place, from year to year.
That was evident in the reactions to the letter from the U.S. Justice Department recommending “best practices” for schools dealing with transgender students. Here in Massachusetts, educators welcomed the suggestions, which mirrored policies they had put in place in response to the 2011 state law — policies Framingham schools followed to make Brandon and other transgender students comfortable. Officials in other states responded with horror at Washington’s “blackmail,” and 11 of them sued the Obama administration over the issue.
It’s easy to make bathroom jokes, even hurtful ones targeting people who happen to be different. It’s easy to complain of “political correctness” forcing “special treatment” for some people — as if the ability to answer nature’s call in comfort and security is some rare privilege to be doled out sparingly.
And it’s easy to argue, as I have, that adults shouldn’t need government to be the bathroom monitor in private businesses. Grownups should be able to work out accommodations that protect everyone’s privacy and comfort.
But schools do need bathroom monitors, and children need adults to protect their privacy and safety. That’s true whether the children are boys, girls, transgender or something in-between. It’s true whether they live in Massachusetts, North Carolina or any other state, red or blue.
Transgender people live in every state, and they are being empowered by cultural forces no political party can stop. Community by community, election by election, court case by court case, America will adjust its bathroom rules. That’s how change happens.
— Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co., and follow him @HolmesAndCo.