Bathrooms, Identity, Rights, and Wisdom: Helping All Students in the Light of Trans* Issues

[The following is a re-posting from my weblog “On Second Thought” published weekly at ContextwithLornaDueck.com]

Two years ago, the Vancouver School Board (VSB) was asked to accommodate students with varying sexual identities. More and more jurisdictions across the country are dealing with these issues, as has been noisily and spectacularly true south of our border as well.

I am firmly on the side of caring for kids who are wrestling with any sexual issues—and how many kids, in this sex-saturated culture, are not? That’s why I advocated to the VSB two years ago, and why I suggest now, that we proceed more slowly than many activists want us to do.

First, let’s let teachers teach. Teachers already have more than enough to do without asking them to take sides in complex and unresolved social and medical questions such as this one. Let them teach their subjects well, and refer seriously troubled children to appropriate mental health resources.

The issues are, indeed, complex and unresolved. Gender dysphoria in particular, and the wider range of trans* issues, are matters disputed at the highest levels of psychological and psychiatric expertise. The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) only begins to reflect the deep differences among the top experts in this field. For school boards and companies and legislatures to run ahead of the experts here would be both dangerous and arrogant.

Second, despite the hue and cry from some quarters, there is no reason to hurry on this question. Individual cases can be provided for easily enough with designated and private gender-neutral facilities. Meanwhile, authorities can be sure that many children will be uncomfortable and even traumatized by the presence of members of the (apparently) other sex in bathrooms, change rooms, gym classes, swimming classes, and the like. To knowingly plan to upset millions of young people in the disputed interests of the very, very few is not enlightened, but doctrinaire.

Third, meaning well is not a sufficient rationale for overturning the policies of decades. Merely wanting to help kids doesn’t mean that this or that policy is in fact better for all kids. Our obligation is not merely to weigh our motives but to find out and then do the best thing according to the best knowledge we can find. Not just “feeling concerned” but knowing the right thing to do is the threshold new policies must pass. And we’re nowhere near knowing what the right thing is to do.

Indeed, sweeping policies being recommended coast to coast prescribe a form of institutional therapy on a matter of mental health that involves plastic and shifting outlooks—and a matter, furthermore, on which there is nothing like expert consensus. To reduce the question to mere justice, as many keep doing, is a category mistake.

A lot of us have wrestled with various forms of “minority identity” in school. Some people felt marginalized by race or class. Some of us felt ostracized because of our religion. Many of us as teens just felt achingly odd.

It is easy, therefore, for us adults to identify strongly with the gender dysphoric kid at the centre of these new policies. And it’s good that we do want to identify with, and care for, anyone feeling left out.

Our obligation as adults, however, is to identify also with the “majority-values” kid who, despite whatever privileges he or she has, also struggles with self-image, sexual maturity, and gender roles. Every child’s concerns matter as much as any other child’s. We dare not trouble some kids on behalf of others merely because some kids have well-meaning adult advocates and others don’t.

And putting trans* kids of different sexes into areas of vulnerability is bad…for everyone.

So by all means keep caring for kids according to policies of reasonable accommodation.

Let teachers teach.

And let’s wait prudently for the experts to provide the solid grounds adequate to justify these sweeping changes, if those grounds ever do emerge.

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