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A gender-neutral restroom in every school: Philly plans changes to make transgender kids feel safe

It’s part of a push to ensure LGBTQ students are learning in welcoming environments, Philadelphia School District officials said.

Amy Hillier (left) and Hazel Edwards. Hillier, a Penn professor, is also a public school parent who helped write and evaluate the School District's policy protecting LGBTQ students. Edwards, a trans activist and educator, helped write the school district's policy on trans and gender non-conforming students.
Amy Hillier (left) and Hazel Edwards. Hillier, a Penn professor, is also a public school parent who helped write and evaluate the School District's policy protecting LGBTQ students. Edwards, a trans activist and educator, helped write the school district's policy on trans and gender non-conforming students.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

When Philadelphia public schools reopen Aug. 31, every building will be equipped with a gender-neutral restroom — at least one single stall for transgender and nonbinary students.

It’s a small step, but a big deal, part of a push to ensure that LGBTQ students are learning in safe, welcoming environments, Philadelphia School District officials said.

The move comes in an increasingly charged political climate, as Republican state lawmakers across the country have pushed legislation to restrict transgender rights. And it’s part of a groundbreaking but sporadically enforced policy that promises district students the right to use their preferred names and pronouns and play for the sports teams aligned with their gender identity, without parental approval or evidence of medical transition.

The first public mention of the coming gender-inclusive restrooms came at a school board meeting during the spring. District officials confirmed the plan to The Inquirer this month.

The district is “committed to creating an inclusive culture where all students feel valued and know they are in a safe and nurturing learning environment,” spokesperson Monica Lewis said. She added that initiatives such as a citywide Gay-Straight Alliance and special mental health support for LGBTQ students will “help us meet the goal of ensuring that there is safety, equity, and justice for all students regardless of gender identity or gender expression.”

Still, advocates — and one school board member — say the district has much more to do to ensure that the experiences of kids and staff live up to the policy. And as thousands of students prepare to return to school after, in most cases, almost a year and a half away from classrooms, protections will be especially important.

“We must do more,” said board member Mallory Fix Lopez. “We must be consistent and double down on LGBTQ student supports.”

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The district’s Policy 252, which applies to transgender and gender nonconforming students, requires that schools use gender-neutral language whenever possible and calls on them “to reduce or eliminate the practice of segregating students by gender,” including in school ceremonies and photos. But although the policy was passed five years ago, some schools still fumble on basic things, such as requiring that boys wear one color gown at graduation ceremonies and girls another, or having students form lines based on gender.

“If we can’t get those superficial, very obvious, tangible things right, what are we doing on other things?” Fix Lopez said in an interview.

Fix Lopez called on the School District to create a full-time LGBTQ affairs position within its new diversity, equity, and inclusion office, and to beef up training and retraining for the policy.

After public pressure, the district did move early in the pandemic to allow transgender and gender nonconforming students to change their names in Google Classroom, avoiding references to deadnames (former names of transgender people) — an important shift as school went online.

But that was still cumbersome for kids, and many didn’t know about the option, said Maddie Luebbert, a teacher at Kensington Health Sciences Academy who identifies as nonbinary.

“We are putting kids in a situation where they feel unsafe, then leaving it up to them to advocate, which is not fair,” Luebbert said. “This process is only happening after a child knows that they even have a chance to change their name and they maybe have a professional in the building who might help them.”

Advocates, including Luebbert, applaud the move to put gender-neutral restrooms in all schools, but Luebbert indicated a wariness of “performative wokeness” — actions that earn public laurels but mean little in practice.

“A policy doesn’t mean anything if there aren’t people to enforce it, and educate it, and provide support,” Luebbert said.

Amy Hillier, a University of Pennsylvania associate professor and parent of a transgender district student, helped author the policy, then was part of a team that evaluated its effectiveness in 2019.

That review found bright spots, such as schools that have excelled in welcoming LGBTQ students and adopting best practices.

But it also identified areas for improvement. In some schools, discussions of gender identity have sparked resistance and defensiveness among some staff, the 2019 analysis found, and in the absence of any trans or gender nonconforming students to spur action, other schools simply ignore the policy. And many district employees “fail to recognize that students of color and students experiencing poverty can be trans and gender-nonconforming,” the review said.

Unlike in some other school systems, where there may be widespread ideological push-back against trans students’ rights, “I do believe that the School District is trying hard under really difficult circumstances,” Hillier said in an interview. “There have clearly been kids since the policy passed who have been deliberately and consistently misgendered, but I think those are probably the exception.”

But implementation of the policy, and protections for LGBTQ students, remain uneven.

“It’s very much dependent on who is in each building and whether or not they care about the policy,” Luebbert said.

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Hazel Edwards, a trans advocate who works with Philadelphia youth, helped draft the policy, and has led district trainings on it, said she’s troubled by how unaware of their rights students are.

“Oftentimes, I hear about the policy as a second thought in schools, or nothing that’s really serious, which is a problem,” Edwards said. “We help trans kids after the harm has already happened. We don’t do work as precaution, and that is compromising student safety. We have to come up with proactive plans.”

The mental health consequences of not doing so can be grave.

According to a national survey released this year, 80% of LGBTQ youth said COVID-19 made their living situation more stressful, and just one in three described having a home that was LGBTQ-affirming. In all, 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year.

“We know that schools need to be places of affirmation for our LGBTQ youth and staff,” Fix Lopez said at the June board meeting. “And we know that affirming, safe spaces can profoundly affect LGBTQ student mental health.”