Gender Identity and the Bathroom Game

Here is a tragic trivia question:  Whom are among the most ‘at risk’ adolescents in our society today?
Answer:  Transgender individuals living in America today have a one in 12 chance of being murdered.  In contrast, the average person has about a one in 18,000 chance of being murdered.

None the less, every time a transgender student becomes visible to mainstream society it isn’t more than a matter of seconds before the bathroom worries are flying all over the place.  And I don’t mean anyone is worried about the safety of the transgendered student.

The Willamette Weekly recently wrote an article about a high school cheerleading program that went into self-imposed shut down in order to avoid reinstating a team member, Alonza, who is transgendered.  The coaches of the team have resigned and the team all quit when the school’s principal insisted that a dismissed  cheerleader, Alonza, be reinstated on the team.

And here is the one short paragraph in a long article that spoke volumes to me of the daily struggles a transgender student faces when trying to fully participate in public education:

On Oct. 7, Lincoln’s JV football team played Hillsboro High and Alonza used the women’s restroom. According to an email Coach Cotton sent to Principal Chapman later that evening, “the other cheerleaders felt uncomfortable changing in there with her. Now I have parents calling and complaining about the situation and threatening to leave the program because of it.…

The notion that a transgender person places her peers at risk in the bathroom is statistically ridiculous while the possibility that a transgender students life is at risk everywhere she goes is statistically chilling.  And the coaches uninformed or callous lack of accommodation for her to participate on the team is quite apparent in this short paragraph. 

The article goes on to explain that this student’s mother identified racism (the family is black) as the pervasive bias this student dealt with while participating on this team.  And the number of times her behavior is described as something akin to disrespectful or uppity would suggest that the intersection of race and gender norms played a strong part in the cheering coaches assessments that this student did not represent the team well.

When I think of the social status of cheerleaders within a high school it is hard to imagine this young woman as THE diva beyond compare who must be punished for her diva ways.  But this is how she is represented by the now resigned cheerleading coaches and the now boycotting team members. 

Cheerleading is by design a hyper feminized culture.  High school cheerleading takes societies notions of the female gender and scripted female performances to another level by turning them into a competitive sport.  That is a significant part of the point of cheerleading and it is well encapsulated in this paragraph of the article:

The team at Lincoln appears to reinforce certain female stereotypes associated with this all-American tradition. The team does cheer for girls sports, but only sporadically. During the fall and winter, much of cheerleaders’ time is spent supporting football and boys basketball, cheering on the sidelines and making motivational banners for football players to run through. On game day, girls wear their uniforms to class.

Alonza and her fellow cheerleaders are selected to be a particular kind of female to the male sporting world of high school.  There is stiff competition in their selection and significant schoolwide social power in being among the elite females of the school.    This entire culture grooms  or at least supports a particular  elite and entitled disposition which is the very disposition Alonza appears to have been dismissed over. 

I smell a trifecta of bias at play in the dismissal of this player at the very least; race, gender, and gender identity all seem to be at play in everything from parents concerns over bathroom safety to the noted eye rolling at the coaches.  And from the articles depiction of this high school as affluent, I can’t help but wonder if  social class didn’t come into play as well, given the predisposition of the white middle class to assume people of color are poor until proven otherwise.

From my read it would seem that Alonza dared to be just as flawed as all the other girls and assumed the same entitlements most excessively popular  high school cheerleaders assume.

Just as cheer coach Fuller purported that, “No decision that we ever made had anything to do with race or gender identity. We fought so hard for her. We stuck our necks out for her to treat her like all of the girls.”  Denying her personal bias while failing to see that her  suggestion that treating Alonza like other people was ‘sticking her neck out’ is the essence of bias.

And in the end Alonza and her supportive principal found out that when you are on the power down side of all of those social identities there is no room to be just like everyone else.  You have to be perfect.  And even then, everyone will be thrilled when you fail.

You can read this Willamette Weekly article about the PPS controversy here.

You can read the PPS letter of concern in response to the article here.  As well as WW’s response to the PPS concerns here.

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5 Comments

Filed under Gender, Gender Identity, Queer Youth, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Gender Identity and the Bathroom Game

  1. Sara

    One needs to make the distinction between “changing” and “going to the bathroom” when engaging in this argument. There is a difference between a bathroom and a locker room. As much as I feel for Alonza, she needs to understand that peeing is one thing, partial or full nudity quite another. And I am a post-operative woman who would also feel very uncomfortable if a pre-op person decided to try to change in front of me, say, in my gym for instance.

    That’s just the way it goes.

    Sara …

    • Julia

      Sara,
      My concern was more with the professional conduct of Alonza’s coaches in instigating the bathroom issue by withdrawing her private accommodations mid-season.
      By my reading of the article Alonza was a student, under the supervision of two coaches who had been working with her and aware of her gender identity for many months.
      They originally provided her with private changing accommodations as well as private sleeping accommodations when traveling and later when these same coaches were at odds with her, they no longer provided her with private accommodations.
      I would consider it a reasonable accommodation for the coaches to have provided a changing room for Alonza or any other transgender youth regardless of their personal feelings for her. That is why I suggested their conduct as her supervisor was either uninformed or callous.
      And my suspicion was callous.
      I believe that when you take on the paid professional role of becoming a teacher, you carry with that the burden of assuming the safety of all of the students under your supervision. And you don’t play power games with that safety by provoking the ire of peers and parents.

      • Sara

        Thanks for clarifying your position Julia. I agree that the private accomodations, once provided, should not have been withdrawn. These coaches do indeed have a responsibility to their students to be consistent even in the face of disagreements and discipline.

        I was coming from a position of the on-going fight that some of us are involved in with transgender activists, which is not really germane to your article.

        Sara …

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