PALMER — Mat-Su school officials last week banned transgender students from using bathrooms and locker rooms that match their chosen gender identity following reports of a “boy” using a high school girls locker room.
The decision came after a crowd of concerned parents, including the Colony High School mother who first raised alarms, packed a Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District school board meeting and requested an end to such access.
The school board voted 5-1 to suspend and review transgender student guidelines developed prior to 2015. An interim policy enacted Thursday requires all students to use facilities matching their biological gender at birth, with a limited number of private rooms available as an alternative.
But transgender advocates say that, rather than increasing school safety, the abrupt shift to an outdated practice poses real risks to students in the midst of transitioning to a new gender identity. Studies show that transgender youths experience higher risk of suicide than others.
These students now face the emotionally daunting choice of using a bathroom or locker room they haven’t entered for a while, potentially “outing” themselves, or waiting for the bathroom in the nurse’s offices, said Vincent Feuilles, president and founder of The Queen’s Guard, a roughly 50-member Mat-Su-based nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ+ people and their allies.
“I know that there are trans youth who have said that they’re not going to be able to follow this policy, because it’s going to out them,” Feuilles said this week. “Some youth ... tried to go into school on Thursday or Friday, and their anxiety levels were so high. They had to have parents come and take them home.”
A number of Mat-Su parents contacted for this story declined to comment. One said people she knew were “terrified” to speak publicly about their transgender children over fear of reprisal.
At least one district teacher is offering the private bathroom in her classroom to any transgender students.
‘Sex discrimination is still unlawful’
The new interim policy for transgender students, which does not apply to school employees, was announced last week in a message from Superintendent Randy Trani to families.
The district’s now-suspended guidelines recommended transgender students use bathrooms or locker rooms “assigned to the gender, which the student consistently asserts at school” or private stalls or a staff facility. Under the interim policy, students can either use facilities corresponding with their biological gender at birth or request a private area.
Exactly what the private rooms will look like will vary from school to school, district spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said this week. The nurse’s office is one option, she said, and school administrators “will work with the student on an appropriate backup facility if necessary.”
There is no timeline for any review of the guidelines, and no process has been put forward by the school board or the board’s three-member policy committee that recommended the change, Morrissey said Tuesday.
She wouldn’t say if any students have been penalized for violating the new policy or specifically what the penalties are.
Mat-Su appears to be the only school district in the state that’s lifted transgender student protections, according to Megan Edge, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.
Anchorage and Fairbanks school districts offer bathroom and locker room access to students that align with the gender identity they consistently assert at school, with provisions for private rooms. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District did not answer questions about its policy for transgender students in time for this story.
Mat-Su school board members say their decision to review the policy came after a federal judge in Tennessee in July temporarily blocked the Biden administration from protecting transgender students and workers in 20 states, including Alaska. The decision enjoined the U.S. Department of Education’s Title IX guidance, which prohibits sex-based discrimination and allows transgender students to use communal bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.
But that doesn’t necessarily make the Mat-Su policy change legal, according to Mara Kimmel, ACLU of Alaska’s executive director.
The “narrow” decision from Tennessee only threatens federal funding for districts like Mat-Su that choose to “illegally discriminate against students on the basis of sex,” Kimmel said in an email. “Sex discrimination is still unlawful under both the federal and Alaska constitutions, and multiple federal appellate courts have sided with trans students, holding that they should be able to use facilities that match their gender identities under federal civil rights law.”
‘A boy in the girls locker room’
The policy change resulted from an emergency meeting of the board’s policy committee after the mother of a Colony High School student voiced concerns on social media in late August.
Palmer resident Christal Houghtelling in a widely shared Facebook post said her daughter came home from school “asking us why there is a boy in the girls locker room.”
Houghtelling testified before the school board last week, saying she had received threats but would not apologize “for bringing this issue to light. My child showed up to the locker room and realized there is a biological male.”
School staff told the family they weren’t allowed to inform parents of a transgender student using the locker room, she said.
“As parents I want you to envision going to work being expected to take your clothes off with persons who have the opposite sex anatomy,” Houghtelling said. “How would that make you feel? Safe? Comfortable? Because that is what is being expected of our children.”
She asked audience members to stand if they support her message. Nearly the entire room stood. A number of parents in subsequent comments cited a Virginia sexual assault case involving a teenager described as gender fluid by their parents.
Later in the meeting, advisory committee member Jeff Taylor apologized to Houghtelling “for this one slipping by us” and applauded the parents who raised the issue.
“Christal, I’m sorry,” Taylor said. “You went through hell. You put out there what happened to your daughter. I’m sorry about that.”
Houghtelling declined to be interviewed for this story. Taylor did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
All of last week’s public testimony supported the policy change. The board limited testimony to one hour despite a standing room-only audience with more outside as well as people who had hoped to testify by phone but could not, several participants said this week.
District officials have not provided specific information about the Colony locker room incident. Feuilles said he didn’t know the student involved.
But, he said, he could imagine a situation involving a transgender girl starting at least the “social” transition stage where they adjust to new names and gender-conforming habits, possibly using hormones yet still far removed from any genitalia-changing surgeries.
To transgender youth and the adults who support them, Taylor’s apology felt like “kind of a smack in the face,” Feuilles said, as did the consistent implication in testimony that they are predators.
Using a gender-conforming bathroom isn’t an arbitrary, day-by-day decision, he said. The district’s guidelines specify students with a consistent pattern of gender identity whose preferred facility is described in a plan filed by families in coordination with school administration.
“The idea that this is a boy in female spaces is really misleading, because we’re not talking about a boy. We’re talking about a trans girl,” Feuilles said. “A trans girl is not going in there to show off ... In fact, the trans women and trans youth that I know are very much about going into the space and getting done what they need to get done, as discreetly and quickly as they can.”