The Sutherlin School District’s decision to allow a male transgender student to use the boys’ bathrooms is being challenged in Douglas County Circuit Court.
The complaint was filed in May by a student identified only as “T.B.” and his guardian Summer Eastwood. The Sutherlin School District, Superintendent Terry Prestianni and Sutherlin High School Principal Justin Huntley are named as defendants.
The suit alleges the school district infringed T.B.’s privacy rights by allowing a transgender student identified in the lawsuit as Tyler to use the boys’ bathrooms. Tyler was identified as a girl at birth, but now identifies himself as a boy. According to T.B.’s attorney Ray Hacke, T.B. was embarrassed and suffered “tremendous anxiety” after Tyler entered a restroom while T.B. was urinating.
But Nancy Haque, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Basic Rights Oregon, said the case is an example of “bullying by lawsuit,” and it’s Tyler’s mental health she’s worried about.
“We are really concerned for Tyler. We are really concerned for all the Tylers in Oregon,” she said.
Transgender students already face high levels of bullying and harassment from their peers, Haque said. And it hurts. Nationwide, more than 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide in their lifetimes, and Haque said that’s because of a lack of societal acceptance.
“Lawsuits like this are mean-spirited and add to an already often hostile school environment,” she said.
T.B.’s lawsuit doesn’t seek money, other than attorney’s fees. Instead, it asks the judge to force the school district to change its rules on transgender students’ bathroom use, and bar Tyler from the boys’ bathroom.
Sutherlin School District Superintendent Terry Prestianni declined to comment on the issue, citing the pending litigation.
However, in a memo sent to parents in the Sutherlin district, Prestianni wrote that the school district was following legal advice in making the decision to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms matching their gender identities.
“This complex issue is currently the subject of much legal and political debate,” Prestianni wrote. “The District is not the authority to decide that issue, but it must come to an informed decision based on the current state of the law and current legal guidance.”
Douglas County is not the only place where issues of transgender bathroom use have landed in the courts. In Virginia, a transgender student who self-identifies as a boy sued his school after he was barred from using the boys’ bathrooms. A federal judge recently ruled in the transgender student’s favor.
In Oregon, a group of parents sued the Dallas School District over its policy — similar to Sutherlin’s — of allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms matching the gender they identify with.
In the Dallas case, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, a federal judge heard arguments in May over whether the case should be dismissed, but has not yet issued a ruling.
Oregon state government sided with the transgender student in the Dallas case. ORS 659.850 states students cannot be discriminated against at school on the basis of their sexual orientation, and ORS 174.100 includes gender identity in the definition of sexual orientation. An Oregon Department of Education guideline, issued in May 2016, gets right to the point, stating school districts must allow transgender students to use bathrooms matching the gender they identify with.
Hacke, T.B.’s attorney, works for the Pacific Justice Institute, which focuses on cases in which conservatives feel their rights have been violated. That conservative bent is reflected in the language used in the complaint, which refers to Tyler as a “girl, who identifies as ‘transgender.’” It also uses the pronoun “she” to refer to Tyler. By contrast, transgender rights advocates would refer to Tyler as a boy and use the pronoun “he,” based on Tyler’s identification with the male gender.
In an interview, Hacke told The News-Review that boys and girls are biologically different, and just because somebody claims to be a different gender doesn’t mean it’s true.
“I mean I’m a large white mammal that can swim. That doesn’t mean I’m a whale,” he said. “Whether I believe I am one or not, if I were to strip naked and dive into the orca tank at SeaWorld, the owners of the park aren’t going to say, ‘He really believes he is one, we’ve got to respect that.’”
Haque called Hacke’s view extreme.
“I think that a lot of people might feel this is new, but it’s not new ... Transgender people have always existed, whether or not they were able to live their true lives,” she said.
She said in the wake of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage equality ruling, conservatives have become “laser focused” on transgender students as the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community.
But Hacke said allowing Tyler in the boys’ restroom is unfair to T.B. and other teen boys like him. This is a case about privacy, not prejudice, he said. He said Oregon law recognizes the right to privacy in bathrooms.
“You know they called them private parts for a reason. You kind of want to keep it private, especially around members of the opposite sex,” he said.