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Citizens debate school board's bathroom policy

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The board confirmed that they have no plans on changing their current policy, but welcomed comments from opposing stances Monday night

By Shaina Stockton

INDEPENDENCE ― Grayson school leaders say that, despite hearing concerns, they will not change a policy prohibiting transgender students from using their preferred restrooms.

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Several county residents and people from surrounding communities on Monday evening addressed the Grayson County School Board about its recent adoption of a policy mandating use of a public restroom or locker room in accordance with the gender listed on a student’s birth certificate.

Adopted earlier this year, the policy ― which was presented to the board by Sen. Bill Carrico amidst a national debate about the topic ― defines “sex” as an individual’s “immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics existing at the time of birth,” and says that an individual’s “original birth certificate may be relied upon as definitive evidence of the individual’s sex.”

The policy states that students must use every public school’s restroom, locker room and shower room accessible by multiple persons at the same time, in accordance with the gender printed on their birth certificate.

The policy includes an accommodation for students who, for any reason, request additional privacy; whereas the student may submit a request to the school principal for access to an alternate, private facility. These incidents will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

The board’s decision launched a debate within the community regarding the rights of transgender students and other individuals. Kristin Plenger of Abingdon, a transgender woman and advocate for transgender rights, recently held a public forum in Independence to share her personal journey of discovery and overcoming adversity, and answered questions.

Plenger invited others who advocate for transgender rights to accompany her to the meeting. In a show of solidarity, she requested that supporters of the message wear the color red.

Before the meeting, an oppositional group planned a similar presentation for the board, showing up in shades of blue to show their support for keeping and enforcing the school’s new policy.

Before the board heard from speakers, Schools Superintendent Kelly Wilmore reminded everyone “to please be cordial and polite and respectful. What we all have in common is that we all want to do what is best for our kids. I expect everyone who comes up to speak tonight, to be respectful of everyone, whether they are residents of Grayson County or just visiting.”

To begin, Plenger came forward with her presentation. “Hi, my name is Kristin Plenger. I am a resident of Southwest Virginia, and I am a transgender woman,” she began. “I am not here to tell what you need to do. I get enough of that myself. I am not here to persuade you to change any policy.”

Rather, she said she sought to educate others with facts about the transgender community, and to help the board should it choose in the future to seek alternative options for integrating transgender students within the school system.

“The fact is less than two in 10 people personally know a transgender person. Today, I hope to make that number bigger. I do this because I hope that, by coming to know me, you will come to understand the danger students in your school district are facing.”

When she was in school, Plenger said she “learned at an early age that I had to hide who I was to be safe. That did not stop the abuse I endured, but it did lessen how much abuse I received. As a child, I saw the loneliness and hatred I felt as normal. I never got to discover myself or feel the dignity of being seen for who I am.

“Instead of learning how to be a part of the world and how to enrich it, I learned how to hate myself and leave the world behind,” she said. “I would spend my time in school fearing what would come the next day, instead of dreaming of what my future would bring.”

Later, Plenger shared the following statistics with the newspaper. According to her research, 90 percent of transgender students experience harassment in school; 35 percent have been physically assaulted; and 16 percent have been sexually assaulted. “This happens because we are being seen as different, wrong or confused. Almost half of transgender students will miss school because they don’t feel safe and over one in ten will never graduate. When parents don’t accept their transgender children, those children are 13 times more likely to commit suicide,” she said.

Additionally, 41 percent of transgender people have tried to commit suicide. “This happens not because we are confused or hate ourselves, but because of how we are treated and abused by the world around us. After high school, it would take me over a decade to finally come to know myself outside of the hatred. After I finally recognized myself for who I was, it would take me another decade before I would be able to reenter the world as the proud, self-confident woman I am today.”

Changing the policy is the board’s decision, she said. “I am here because I know what it is like to go to a school where you do not feel safe. I am hoping that by speaking to you, that you will see that there are transgender students in your school district,” even if none have requested to use a restroom that is different from their birth gender.

“They have learned that they are not safe or understood. I hope you acknowledge that they feel the need to hide to be safe. I hope you come to understand that their lives might be wasted hiding instead of thriving,” Plenger said. “I hope this is a decision you will consider carefully. And I hope you will come to understand that a policy that negatively targets and separates transgender students increases that fear and widens the distance between transgender students and the world they want to be a part of.”

She further implored, “I hope you see that it is not necessary to put transgender children in danger just to keep all students safe from real threats. Virginia has laws that protect all of our children from abuse and sanction real predators. I want to help you make this place safer for all students. I will work with you, and the community, to increase understanding and acceptance. I think this will not only make schools safer for transgender students, but all students.”

Kenneth Belton, a member of the Grayson Board of Supervisors, spoke Monday evening not as a representative of the county, but as a citizen. He thanked the school board for the policy, and showed his support for it to remain in effect.

“I wanted to thank you for having the guts to stand up for what is right in your vote on the transgender issue. [In recent news stories], it was said that this decision was made due to hatred, and being misinformed about the transgender community,” he said. “I’ve known most of the board members for most of my life, and I don’t see hate among any of them. Tim Carico was one of my best friends, and I know there was no hate in that boy.”

(Carico, a school board member when the policy was approved, died in July after being injured in an ATV accident.)

“As for me, I have no hate for anyone who is different,” Belton said, before referencing a 2011 report published by the Williams Institute, stating that 0.3 percent of America’s population identifies as transgender. “That means that 99.7 percent of the population looked in the mirror, and were happy about what God had given them. So why should that [small percentage] that chose to be different, think the world should rotate around them?” he said.

Sen. Bill Carrico said at the meeting that the policy “was adopted to protect every student, not to single out one or the other. As you know, every student in your school system has a right under the Constitution to privacy,” he began.

He reminded the board that, when the policy was decided upon, a representative from the Alliance Defending Freedom ― a conservative group that drafted the policy for the board’s approval ― guaranteed that it had sound Constitutional standing, and that the group was prepared to defend it all the way up to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

He added that the policy not only stands for students in the school system, but also visiting schools or visitors during local events. “If you have a school event, and you have no policy, you could be facing a transgender [person] going into a bathroom ― and it could be an adult,” he said.

Regarding the opposition, he said, “You have to understand that the advocates are going to come at you. When that happens, your job is like mine: to protect the rights of the privacy and safety of these kids.”

“As a parent of a Grayson County student, I appreciate you supporting the Constitutional rights of my daughter, and taking a stand,” he said.

Kathy Cole, who wore red to the meeting, began her address by stating that she doesn’t believe any of the decisions regarding the policy were made out of hatred. “But I do believe there is a lot of fear,” she said.

Cole shared that she was surprised by the statistics that were presented during Plenger’s previous public talk at the 1908 Courthouse, which revealed that those who have met a transgender person are in the minority. “I’ve found that this is unusual, but I have known four different people around this country who are transgender. And my fear is, if one of them who has transitioned to the way they are living now, had to go into the other bathroom, they would not be safe and that would be a major event.”

Cole said that it has never been an issue with the transgender people she knows. “There is no evidence it has ever been an issue anywhere,” she continued. One of the individuals she knows is a student, and she noted that the student had never experienced an issue with using the bathroom they were comfortable with.

“I also know that being transgender is not something a person decides day by day. The football team can’t just decide, ‘We’re girls today!’ and go into the [girls’] bathroom ― you will find out just how loud cheerleaders can yell,” she said. “People who are transgender go through years of struggle.”

She also said that she doesn’t understand the argument regarding violation of privacy. “There are no open urinals, no one’s privacy is harmed. As for predators, we’ve always had predators in bathrooms; this policy will do nothing to change that. But it implies something about transgender people: that they are predators; and I take offense to that. I ask you to please educate yourselves, and don’t be swayed by fears that are unfounded.”

Ralph Tuttle, a supporter of the policy, told the board members that he hoped they stood by the decision. “I’m concerned that having made that decision, that you might be influenced to reconsider. The consequences of any other decision you all might make would be enormous. I have an 8-year-old granddaughter, and if a policy was put into effect in the school she goes to, that would blur the use of the restrooms in that school, that would be the last day she ever attended a public school,” he said.

He referred to Genesis 1:27 in the Bible, which states, “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

“He created them with physical differences we can see, but those can be changed. But, science tells us that God also had another way to differentiate between male and female: chromosomes. No surgery, no hormone treatments, no counseling, nothing can change the fact that females have a double x and males have the x and the y [chromosomes],” he said.

Charlotte Hanes, a friend of Cole’s, passed the school board a photo of a three males, including one who is a transgender family member.

“I’ve done my research, and it seems like this board and the school system has, in previous years, handled this situation fairly. There is a lot of fear, and a lot of politics, but,” she continued, referring to the picture, “I ask you, would you want one of [the men in this photo] to go into the restroom with your daughter?”

Pastor Daniel Harrison of Elk Spur Church in Carroll County, appealed as a Christian to the board, referring first to the seal behind them that states, “In God we trust.”

“I know the people in Grayson County feel passionate about that. If you feel passionate about trusting in God, and following Christ, I ask you: if Jesus were here today, what would he do?”

Towards the argument of gender, Harrison referred to Philip in Acts 8 in the Bible, a Christian martyr who baptized a man who had been castrated: “Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’ Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’”

Harrison asked Plenger to stand up. “Do you think it would be Jesus [standing beside] her?” he asked. “Jesus would not separate Kristin from the crowd, or put anyone in a corner and [alienate] them. Jesus would not be afraid. Jesus was a lover of people, not just certain people, but all people. Jesus was not afraid to be bold. I am asking you to be brave, and be like the Jesus you came to follow.”

Jim Best, a member of the gay community in Floyd, implored that the school board learn from example.

“In Floyd County, for more than a year, we have had four gender-neutral bathrooms, and we have had no problems or complaints; no community uprising or emotional response,” he said. “You, as representatives of an educational system, I hope you will be influenced by an example, by knowledge, by learning, and not by outside fear-based influences.”

Cody Howdeshell, dressed in blue, challenged the arguments made by those dressed in red that evening. “There has been a lot of talk this evening about fear. About everyone here in blue tonight is out here supporting [the policy], and believe me, we’re not scared of a darn thing,” he began.

“As a conservative, I believe in equality under the law. For us to have equality, we need to have true definitions of boundaries, and of what is what. They can’t be opened to interpretation by man or by government, or it will wipe away all parameters and we essentially render all definitions null. If the law states that your body does not define your gender, then under equal treatment, nothing defines anything. Body does not define gender, DNA does not define species, IQ does not define intelligence and actions do not define responsibility.”

Addressing Plenger in the audience, he continued.

“If we allow someone who is anatomically a male or female to be the opposite gender, why can’t I be a cat? Why can’t I be a tree? And if I decide I am a cat, what if I demand a kitty litterbox? Once you take away the definition and boundary of gender and sex ― put forth by nature, by God, whatever you want to call it ― what does define it? Nature. DNA, chromosomes, reproductive organs, bone structure… there is no way around that.”

Referring to Plenger’s talk at the 1908 Courthouse, “she said she would not feel safe going into the men’s restroom. But how come that safety is more important than how the women in the restroom feel, when a man comes in? Miss Plenger has gone through a transition and now she looks like a woman. But there are transgenders who say they are the opposite sex, but they have not gone through the transition… they are men in every true aspect, and mentally ill, in my opinion.”

Rebecca Absher, a teacher and parent, was the final speaker. She said that she wanted to speak that evening as an individual, to advocate for those who can’t speak for themselves.

“As educators in a public school system, we cannot hold any biases against any student. We are called to teach all students. In a public school, we teach every person who walks in the door,” she said.

She continued, “As a parent, I stand in opposition to your bathroom policy. I wouldn’t want my child objected to harassment or derogatory statements because he or she is different. Transgender students can be protected without using their gender as a divisive agent for the student body. Compromises can be made. We must be flexible and find solutions for everyone involved.”

To close her statement, she quoted “The Human Family” by Maya Angelou ― “I note the obvious differences; between each sort and type; but we are more alike, my friends; than we are unalike.”

Following the meeting, Wilmore thanked everyone who turned out to speak, but made it clear that neither he nor the board are considering a change to the policy.

“If the need arises, and we need to do some things to help students down the road, we are always looking to help any of our students. But our policy is very strong, and we are staying with the policy we have,” he said.