On October 8, a new policy concerning transgender and gender non-conforming students will be reviewed by the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) policy committee. Subsequently, it will be presented at the next school board meeting, scheduled for October 21. The policy was drafted by the President of the School Board, Judy Appel, and was modeled after a policy from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
“The most important thing this policy addresses is the safety and happiness of transgender or gender non-conforming students, and I think even in the action of drafting this policy and proposing it to BUSD, that sends the message that the district really cares about transgender and gender-non conforming students,” said Lianna van Hout, a senior in Academic Choice (AC) and member of the Student Senate Council.
“It’s a way of taking gender acceptance to a new level,” Appel said. Berkeley schools are known for being progressive in terms of accepting LGBTQ+ students. Most schools in BUSD provide gender neutral bathrooms, as well as clubs and education on LGBTQ+ topics. However, there is still a lot of work to be done for transgender and gender non-conforming students.
“I would say the intent of most people in our district is to comply with the components of this policy, but for me, what’s most important is that we’re making an affirmative statement that we accept students’ gender, and we want to do what we can to show that through our policies and practices,” said Appel.
The policy contains specific requirements for gender neutral bathrooms and optional privacy in locker rooms for transgender and gender non-conforming students. If the policy is accepted, students must be allowed to use the bathroom or locker room that corresponds with their gender identity. Additional accommodations — such as single-stall bathrooms and private changing areas — will be offered on a case-by-case basis.
According to van Hout, student culture in BUSD can negatively impact transgender and gender non-conforming students. She has noticed stigmatisation and discrimination against LGBTQ+ students at Berkeley High School (BHS), and has heard anti-LGBTQ+ slurs. The policy attempts to minimize harassment of transgender and gender non-conforming students. It states that all accounts of discrimination based on one’s gender identity must be treated like other reports of discrimination. Van Hout thought this part of the policy would be very helpful in making schools safer and more comfortable.
If the policy passes, students will also be allowed to participate on sports teams and in P.E. classes with the gender they identify with. The idea that transgender people can participate on sports teams with the gender they identify with has been very controversial worldwide. Because transgender atheletes don’t have the same biological make-up, they are perceived as having advantages over their cisgender competitors. Many coaches and athletes have advocated for transgender people to be required to compete alongside those of their biological sex, not their gender. In a few cases, this has lead to transgender athletes getting their records erased and not being permitted to compete. This controversy extends to BUSD schools as well.
“Overall, I think it would be more fair if [transgender people playing on the sports teams of their gender identity] just wasn’t allowed,” said a student athlete at Berkeley High. But van Hout disagrees. “Sports build confidence, and a lot of the time when you’re struggling with your identity, having that community that cares about you is really important. Transgender and gender non-conforming students have every right to be a full part of that,” van Hout said.
One practice in many schools that can also be harmful to transgender and gender non-conforming students is separating classes by gender. Appel said separating students by gender from a young age enforces a binary perspective, which can be damaging for students who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. The proposed policy, if passed, will not allow schools to separate students like this anymore.
Additionally, the policy affirms that Berkeley schools should not be authorized to share information regarding a student’s gender identity without the student’s permission. The policy says, “Transgender and gender nonconforming students have the right to discuss and express their gender identity and expression openly and to decide when, with whom, and how much to share private information.”
If accepted by the school board, this policy is likely the first of its kind in the United States. When researching the policy, Appel said she couldn’t find any other policies that detail procedures surrounding solely transgender and gender non-comforming students. “We will be among the first to provide such an affirmative and clear policy, and I’m really proud of it,” Appel said.