Dominic Ramos, 18, wearing a cropped shirt, high-waisted denim shorts and heavy makeup, waves his “Honk if trans people are people” sign enthusiastically at passing cars outside of Hedrick Middle School.
He is joined on Tuesday afternoon by about 30 other students from North and South Medford high schools. Some consider themselves transgender or, like Ramos, genderless. But all are counterprotesting a demonstration the day before — by people opposed to transgender bathrooms — and voicing their support of the Obama administration’s directive that transgender youth be treated consistent with their gender identity.
Despite his proclivity for all things feminine, particularly makeup, Ramos doesn’t mind going by masculine pronouns.
In the eighth grade, Ramos says, he came out as gay to his very religious family.
“After that, it was a lot of self-discovery, acceptance of myself and self-exploration,” the South Medford senior says.
“For me that meant trying new things I never imagined I would and going outside the clothes norm, forgetting that there is a boys' side and a girls' side to a department store,” he says. “It’s about being beautiful. However that works for you.”
When he’s out with friends, Ramos uses the women’s restroom when the girls go inside as a group “because I feel more comfortable and safer than walking into a men’s restroom not knowing who’s in there and how they might judge me,” he says.
But at school, Ramos uses the men’s restroom because he feels it’s appropriate for his situation, even if he can use the women’s restroom per the new guidelines.
On May 13, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education issued a joint letter to public schools nationwide reminding them of their Title IX obligation “to prohibit sex discrimination in educational programs and activities operated by recipients of Federal financial assistance.”
The letter advised schools that if they wished to keep their federal funding, they must allow transgender students to participate in activities such as sports and access facilities, including restrooms, locker rooms and housing accommodations, consistent with their gender identity. For example, a transgender girl (born as a boy but who identifies as a girl) must be allowed to play on a school’s girls team.
School staff also must honor transgender students’ desired names and pronouns, the letter said, referring to a 19-page document titled, “Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices for Supporting Transgender Students,” published this month by the U.S. Department of Education. The document advised school districts on how to confirm a student’s gender identity, protect a transgender student’s privacy regarding his or her transgender status, change a student’s name or sex designation on student records and organize field trips with overnight accommodations, to name a few.
Earlier this month, prompted by requests from school districts and education service districts, the Oregon Department of Education released its own set of guidelines for fostering “educational environments that are safe, free from discrimination and aligned with state and federal laws,” says ODE Communication Director Amy Wojcicki.
“The guidance is designed to be used by school boards, administrators, and other members of the educational community to guide development of school procedures and district policies related to transgender and gender nonconforming students that are in alignment with state and federal laws,” Wojcicki says in an email.
ODE will issue an order against districts that fail to comply with state law, and “there would be possible withholding of state funds,” Wojcicki says.
After repeated phone calls to local school districts for a response to the new guidelines, several issued statements that they are committed to providing a safe learning environment for all students, that they are compliant with state and federal guidelines and that staff are trained regularly on Title IX expectations.
“We always operate within the law, and we’re not a political organization so we don’t take a political position,” says Central Point Superintendent Samantha Steele. "We’re going to meet students’ needs and protect students’ rights.”
Medford School District spokeswoman Natalie Hurd says every school in the district has at least one gender-neutral bathroom. Hedrick Middle School, the scene of the two protests last week, has two, she says.
On May 11, district administrators were trained by a Title IX expert from ODE and are “currently reviewing the guidelines recently issued by ODE and engaging in conversations with our board and staff around this issue,” the district's statement reads.
Long before these guidelines were released, Ashland High School allowed transgender students to decide which bathrooms they wanted to use and what sports teams they wanted to join.
“We appreciate the guidelines from ODE, but most of the changes have come from us responding to student voice,” says AHS Principal Erika Bare, adding that the school works closely with the Queer Straight Alliance and Lotus Rising Project to determine procedures and train staff.
About two years ago, the high school stopped having students vote for a homecoming king and queen and, instead, established a gender-neutral, three-person homecoming court made up of students who embody the characteristics of an outstanding Grizzly, Bare says.
“We got some resistance when we switched, but that had more to do with a change in tradition,” she says. "The majority of the resistance came not from students, but from alumni. The majority of our students and community has been very supportive.”
Southern Oregon University in Ashland also strives to be inclusive. For the past three years, Campus Pride, a national organization for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) college students and campus groups, has named SOU one of the top 25 LGBTQ-friendly campuses for its ability to recruit, retain, protect and provide opportunities for LGBTQ students.
Not all people support a culture in which gender nonconformity is embraced and protected. Some have expressed fears that allowing males in a girls' bathroom violates girls' privacy and could open the door to sexual predators. The American College of Pediatricians, a conservative splinter group of the American Academy of Pediatrics, released a statement this spring warning that "conditioning children into believing that a lifetime of chemical and surgical impersonation of the opposite sex is normal and healthful is child abuse. Endorsing gender discordance as normal via public education and legal policies will confuse children and parents, leading more children to present to ‘gender clinics’ where they will be given puberty-blocking drugs.”
Parents’ Right in Education, a nonprofit organization based in Beaverton and made up of parents, educators and school board members, issued a statement last week saying that “Oregon school districts are being bullied by the new guidelines."
The group argued that although the ODE document insists that the guidelines not be accepted as legal advice, it puts “substantial pressure” on districts to comply.
The ODE guidelines cite best practices by the Eugene School District and Portland Public Schools, which refer staff and families to the TransActive Gender Center based in Portland. The transgender advocacy group “condones minors using puberty blockers/feminizing and masculinizing hormones and supports the idea of 15-year-old minors getting sex changes,” says Lori Porter, a longtime Oregon teacher and the director of Parents’ Right in Education, in a press release.
The TransActive website (www.transactiveonline.org) counsels parents to be open to their "transgender adolescent, teen or young adult’s need to better align their body to their gender identity. This may include pubertal suppression and/or cross-sex hormones and possibly gender confirming surgery."
On Monday, a group of about 10 parents and middle school students protested the transgender guidelines outside Hedrick Middle School. Some of their signs read, “Say ‘No’ to transgender bathrooms” and “Honk if you’re not okay with boys in a young girl’s bathroom/locker room.”
Medford district spokeswoman Hurd says boys are not allowed in the girls' bathrooms.
“We have had transgender students in the district for years and always work directly with families to create what we call ‘safety plans’ to address those students’ needs so they are safe and feel comfortable and accepted, while keeping in mind the safety of others,” Hurd says.
The district has had success with this method and has not had any issues so far, she says.
“The guidelines aren’t saying just anybody can walk into either bathroom,” she adds.
Sexual predators are the problem, not transgenders, says Hayley Browne, a gender-nonconforming North Medford senior who organized Tuesday’s counterprotest.
“It’s crazy that something as simple as using the bathroom can cause so much commotion,” says Browne.
“I think it’s wrong for people to push transgenders back to the gender they were assigned at birth, just to use the bathroom,” Browne says.
At Tuesday’s protest, Griffin Trump, a 17-year-old transgender boy, held a sign that read, “Our rights don’t harm yours.”
“This is a reclaiming-rights type thing,” says Trump, who knew the basis of the Obama administration’s new directive and had joined the protest to support trans youth.
Trump says he’d experienced some gender confusion at a young age, but it wasn’t until the eighth grade that he realized he was transgender, and a therapist helped to confirm this. He came out to his friends in the ninth grade and to his mom in the 11th grade.
“I told her in the car, and she started crying and almost had to pull over,” he says. “She didn’t understand, which makes sense because a lot of people don’t. It was like she was losing the daughter that she knew. But ultimately she’s had a positive response, and now she corrects people when they use the wrong pronoun.”
Trump says it’s insulting when people refer to transgenders as a “heshe,” a “tranny” or a “shemale” and when they ask what their real or “dead” name is.
“Also, asking someone what is in their pants is very offensive,” he says.
“Gender is what you feel in your brain and your heart, but sex is what your parts are when you’re born and your chromosomes,” he says.
At school, Trump says he tries to avoid using the restroom, but when he does, he uses the girls bathroom.
“Even though the school’s policies are great, I’m afraid some dude will come and kick my butt,” he says.
Dylan Moncus, 17, a junior at Logos Public Charter School, attends Rogue Community College through Logos’ Scholars Program, is a member of the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Committee, a former member of the Junior State of America and the host of his new YouTube channel, “The Dylan Show.”
The intent of his series, he says, is to provide a platform for intelligent response and debate for conservatives and liberals alike.
In one of his recent videos, titled “Transgender Restrooms and Introductions,” he advocated the use of unisex or family bathrooms by the transgender community and drew comments from a genderless person, who prefers using a unisex bathroom, and his economics teacher, who suggested that overhauling an entire system to cater to a very small percentage of people may not be “economically smart.”
“If there’s a transgender community at a school, and they have the economic means to build a unisex bathroom, why not?” Moncus says.
Moncus says he was aware of the new state and federal guidelines, allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, but says he felt that “this will leave the door open for people to abuse going to the ladies’ bathroom.”
“I know statistics don’t back me up, but again, I think it will leave the door open,” he says.
Unisex bathrooms, he says, seem to be an “easy compromise.”
“I don’t think it’s discriminatory,” he says. “My personal opinion is that a transgender is someone who is born either a boy or girl but psychologically thinks they are the opposite sex. I think that is a form of an illness.
“We need to help the transgender community,” he says, adding that he doesn’t think transitioning is the solution, considering that more than 40 percent of those who do attempt suicide.
“People get bullied over this, and I don’t think people should be bullied over this either because that sucks,” he adds.
To view the joint guidance issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, see http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201605-title-ix-transgender.pdf.
Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.
ODE's Transgender Student Guidelines by Mail Tribune