For some transgender students, the school bathroom is a battleground
The simple act of visiting the toilet remains a minefield.
By Jill Stark
Georgie Stone was eight years old when the school bathroom became a battleground.
In the face of daily humiliation and bullying, going to the toilet had become an act of enormous courage.
Born biologically male, Georgie had known from an early age she was a girl.
But despite her transition at age seven — identifying as, dressing as, and asking to be recognised as a girl — she was not allowed to use the girls’ facilities at school.
Georgie’s mother said the principal told her it would confuse the other children and potentially incite tensions with parents.
It led to an incident in the boys’ swimming change room, just before Georgie’s ninth birthday, that she describes as one of the most traumatic of her life.
“I was wearing female bathers, I had long hair and people knew that I’d transitioned. I remember walking in there and it was all boys and a lot of the people who had bullied me in the past were in there,” the 16-year-old said.
“I just remember them jeering at me, making fun of me, shouting at me, saying, ‘What’s a girl doing in the male change rooms?’. It was awful. I ran out half-dressed, crying my eyes out.”
For the rest of the term, Georgie got changed for swimming behind a tree. At school, she stopped going to the bathroom altogether.
Concerned for her safety, her parents found a more understanding school. Now she is thriving and no longer lives in fear.
But the simple act of visiting the toilet remains a minefield for many trans and gender diverse students.
Students wearing nappies to school to avoid using toilets
As global recognition of the rights and struggles of transgender people grows, the momentum is throwing up a complex set of challenges for schools, most acutely around bathroom access.
Principals are balancing the needs of trans and gender diverse young people against the potential pushback from school communities — already witnessed in the United States — where opponents argue girls born biologically male pose a risk to other students in female bathrooms.
Transgender young people and their families say they are no threat and just want to feel comfortable using toilets.
But in the absence of uniform national guidelines outlining schools’ legal obligations, some Australian students are being forced to use bathrooms that do not match their gender identity, in some instances causing them such distress that parents are pulling them out of school entirely.
Michelle Telfer, director of Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital’s Gender Service, said many young transgender people go to extreme lengths to feel safe in school bathrooms.
“We’ve seen kids who’ve worn nappies to school — in high school — to avoid going to the toilet.”
“Kids who don’t drink from the time they get up in the morning to the time they get home from school so that they’re dehydrated and they don’t need to go to the toilet,” Dr Telfer said.
Melbourne student Oliver Kipnis identified as a boy, and dressed in boys’ clothing, until he transitioned at age 10. But until he came out to his classmates he felt obliged to use the girls’ bathrooms.
“When I was about nine I had an incident at school where another girl said, ‘Aren’t you in the wrong toilets?’ So I stopped using toilets in public altogether,” the 14-year-old said.
“It was such an awkward experience and I didn’t want to repeat it so I just stopped drinking water and went to the toilet at home.”
Things are slowly changing
The Australian Education Union has called on state education departments to follow the lead of South Australia, which last month became the first state to introduce a new policy that requires all public schools to allow students to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.
The education department developed the mandatory guidelines — which also allow students to use their preferred gender pronoun — following a number of queries from teachers and parents seeking guidance.
The policy states that, “failure to provide transgender students with access to appropriate toilet and change facilities may breach anti-discrimination legislation”.
Victoria and Western Australia have introduced similar, although less explicit, guidelines outlining how schools should support trans and gender diverse students, including allowing them to access bathrooms that match their gender identity.
Australian Education Union Federal President Correna Haythorpe said it was “vital” schools support trans and gender diverse students to access appropriate bathrooms.
However, there is growing opposition to the advance of transgender rights, particularly in schools, fuelling concerns trans children here will be caught up in the so-called “bathroom wars”.
Australian conservative groups — including the Australian Christian Lobby — have applauded US President Donald Trump’s recent move to wind back federal protections for transgender students, which had instructed public schools to allow students to use the toilets and change rooms matching their gender identities or lose government funding.
“There are lobbyists within Australia who are really keen to import that idea of fear of a threat that really doesn’t exist,” said Laura*, the mother of a 13-year-old trans girl from rural Tasmania, who runs the support group Gender Help for Parents.
“They’re just playing by the same playbook that they’ve used in the US. I think our kids are potentially going to be the next targets.”
Some parents are opting out of the school system
After campaigning fiercely against the Safe Schools anti-bullying program, The Australian Christian Lobby has called on all state governments to “take immediate steps to allow schoolgirls to feel safe in school toilets and change rooms”.
Managing director Lyle Shelton said this meant “boys identifying as girls” should not be allowed access to girls’ private spaces such as toilets and change rooms.
When asked whether he thought transgender girls using female bathrooms was a risk to other students, Mr Shelton did not comment but said: “The idea of allowing biological males identifying as girls who have not had gender reassignment surgery to enter girls’ private spaces is new.
“It is not reasonable for parents to be required, without their permission, to have their daughters participate in such a social experiment.”
In the face of confusion and potential trauma to their transgender children, some parents are opting out of the school system altogether.
Kerri* has home-schooled her 16-year-old daughter Jasmine* since she transitioned at age seven, after her school in regional South Australia insisted she would not be allowed to use the girls’ bathrooms until Kerri provided documents from a lawyer, counsellor, psychiatrist and GP.
“They were worried about legal issues. They wanted documents that would indemnify them if other parents had an issue,” she said.
While Kerri gathered the documentation, the principal offered Jasmine the disabled or staff toilets — a common solution by schools that can often leave the student feeling more alienated.
For Jasmine, it was too late.
“We had to pull her out because she was just too distressed. She would try to hold on but she was having accidents, wetting herself,” Kerri said. “There was just so much shame and fear for her.”
‘The predator myth’
As yet, no Australian student who has been denied bathroom access has publicly challenged their school.
But in the United States, Virginia teenager Gavin Grimm has become the face of the bathroom wars, taking his case to the Supreme Court, after being denied access to the male toilets and locker rooms by his school, citing breaches of federal law.
The equivalent Australian law is the Sex Discrimination Act, which Anna Brown, Director of Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said protected transgender students.
“Schools have a legal duty not to subject students to a ‘detriment’ or limit access to any benefit because of their gender identity,” Ms Brown said.
“In practice this means supporting students as they transition, including allowing them to use toilets that accords with the gender they live as.”
In the United States, opposition to bathroom access has centred on what equality campaigners have dubbed the “predator myth”.
Conservative groups have argued that allowing trans people to use the toilet of their affirmed gender could lead to attacks on women and girls by men or boys posing as transgender females.
In response, a coalition of more than 200 organisations working with sexual assault and domestic violence survivors last year released a statement pointing out that in the 18 states where anti-discrimination laws protect trans people’s access to the bathroom of their affirmed gender, there has been no rise in sexual violence offences.
Catharine Lumby, a Macquarie University professor who researches gender and the media, argues transgender women are more likely to be the victims of a transphobic attack than predators themselves.
“The predator mythology is a smokescreen for some people’s deep discomfort with the idea that gender is fluid … often male conservatives, who’d like return to a world where gender roles were highly structured and easy to identify,” she said.
Young people aren’t ‘choosing’ to be trans
In Australia, much of the opposition rests with a discomfort about young people transitioning too early, and a belief that some will change their minds.
David van Gend, president of the Australian Marriage Forum which opposes same-sex marriage, said he was concerned that allowing transgender students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity “collaborates with a child’s delusion”.
“Given the fact that the vast majority of gender-confused children get over their confusion around the time of puberty, why use the authority of the school to affirm and entrench their confused behaviour?” Dr van Gend said.
Dr van Gend said such policies were “clinically reckless” and likened them to agreeing with an emaciated girl suffering from anorexia that she is fat.
“In both cases, we must strive to help the young person come back to reality.”
Dr Telfer said studies showing children grow out of their transgender identity had been widely discredited and that young people going through gender transition do so in consultation with parents, teachers and medical professionals.
“The young people we see aren’t choosing to be trans. It’s something they’ve thought about their entire life and has often taken a lot of courage over several years to speak up,” she said.
“They’re driven to come out to save themselves from self-harm and suicide.”
Dr Telfer said Oliver’ story was an example of how transgender children can flourish when offered appropriate support.
Before he came out to classmates, Safe Schools Coalition Australia visited the school at the request of the principal and worked out a plan with Oliver, his family and staff, allowing him to use the boys’ toilets and play in the boys’ sports teams.
“Nothing really changed except that they stopped using that old name and they started using the new pronoun,” Oliver said. “It wasn’t a big deal. I was just me.”
*Names have been changed