Gender-neutral locker room in Long Beach school in limbo

For nearly two years, they gathered research. They listened to students. And in the end, the administrators of the Long Beach Unified School District drew a clear conclusion: Now was the time for a new kind of locker room, one that would give all students privacy in a space that’s long been a source of teenage anxiety and dread.

Instead of the traditional separate spaces for boys and girls, the new aquatics center at Wilson High School would feature private stalls big enough for students to both shower and change in. The aim was to ensure safe access to the facilities for all students, regardless of gender identity or expression.

The plan was first presented to the board of education in August 2020, when parents and educators were mostly concerned with whether students would be able to return to campuses due to the pandemic. There was no vocal opposition to the locker room concept in a city where gender-neutral bathrooms were already commonplace.

But in November 2021, the far-right news outlet Breitbart picked up the issue to lob a grenade against the left in the culture wars. In an article headlined “Parents Alarmed as California High School Unveils ‘All Gender’ Locker Room,” the author wrote that parents feared boys and girls would be in “various states of undress” together in the locker room, and the “possibility of sexual assault.”

The opposition kicked up a few days later when a small group of community members spoke out against the locker room at a Dec. 1 board meeting. They continued to rail against the project at the next few meetings and news outlets picked up the story.

On Feb. 2, the district announced it was putting the locker room project on pause in order to gather more community input.

Though the discourse in Long Beach has been peaceful compared with the vitriol that has played out in school board meetings across the country, it reflects a national trend of a public that’s increasingly clashing with school officials over issues such as LGBTQ rights, vaccine mandates and curriculum. And it’s happening against a backdrop of an unprecedented wave of legislation that seeks to restrict the rights of transgender youth.

Tiffany Brown, deputy superintendent for Long Beach Unified, said she sees a connection between widespread anti-transgender rhetoric and the opposition to gender-neutral facilities in her district. Students have overwhelmingly supported the project. “They’re like, ‘Why wouldn’t we be doing this?’” she said.

In 2013, California became the first state to enshrine into law the right of transgender students to choose the bathroom or locker room consistent with their gender identity. Three years later, the state required all single-occupancy public toilets to be gender neutral by spring 2017. While advocates say this was a step in the right direction — and helped curb some of the physical and verbal harassment many trans kids endured in bathrooms — many schools complied with the law by letting students use the bathroom in the nurse’s office.

But students who had yet to share their gender identities with classmates were often outed when they used these bathrooms, advocates said. And many found this quick fix stigmatizing, as if their desire to go to the bathroom in peace were a medical problem. Some resorted to the physical discomfort of trying to avoid the bathrooms for an entire school day, leading to urinary tract infections. In 2019, a national survey by the education organization GLSEN found that 45% of LGBTQ students avoided using gender-segregated school bathrooms and 44% avoided locker rooms because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.

This was the case for Amber Va, who came out as trans while attending Long Beach Polytechnic High School in 2018. When she used the girls’ restroom, her classmates would whisper and shoot her dirty look. She would stand up for herself and try to talk it out with them. Some were receptive, but the mental and emotional gymnastics of having to debate her humanity exhausted her, so Va started using the office bathroom. Because it was in the center of the school and far from most other buildings, she’d have to run to make it back to class on time. Often she didn’t.

Va told school administrators about her experience. “They didn’t want to believe me,” she said. So the teen started an online petition to create more gender-neutral restrooms in the district. She got support from the LGBTQ Center Long Beach and the American Civil Liberties Union. Va organized a task force of trans and gender-nonconforming students who wanted to see their campuses create more gender-neutral facilities, as districts like L.A. Unified had done. The group spent months speaking to principals and parent-teacher organizations in the district.

By January 2020, their advocacy had borne fruit as the district quietly opened multi-stall bathrooms at three schools. There were a lot of questions, Brown said, but little to no opposition at the time, and no press.

The district now requires all new school construction to include gender-neutral locker rooms and bathrooms, and encourages middle and high schools undergoing renovations to consider installing them.

Wilson’s aquatics center was the first new facility to be built since this shift. The district conducted focus groups on locker room design with 60 students at four high schools. Participants, regardless of gender identity, consistently described feeling uncomfortable in the communal showers and changing areas. Many brought up body image and bullying. They wanted private stalls, good locks and supervision to monitor student behavior.

Wilson High’s locker room design reflects this feedback. Each stall includes a shower, changing area, bench and storage nook. The partitions between each stall would extend nearly to the ceiling and floor, and waist-high lockers would allow for coaches to easily supervise the space.

The board of education hasn’t yet scheduled a vote on the locker room design. Even still, after the Breitbart story, opponents spoke at every December and January board meeting, and did not let up until officials announced that the project was paused.

Robert Hamilton, the father of a sophomore swimmer at Wilson, charged that Lakewood High’s all-gender restroom had become a “cesspool” where students were having sex and doing drugs. The district told the Times that these claims are unfounded.

“By building coed lockers rooms, you’ll be intentionally placing our children, my daughter in particular … at much greater risk of sexual assault,” he said, later adding, “This issue will indeed cost some of you your reelections if you’re unwilling or incapable of protecting … the health and safety of our children.”

Scott Rice, who does not have children in the district but graduated from Wilson in 1985, said the locker rooms were “ludicrous and dangerous for kids.” Rice said he contacted USA Swimming, teachers, coaches, and his local councilperson to complain. By the end of his speech, he was shouting into the microphone.

“We need to put a hold on this project and get real input and not dictates from a woke group,” he said, rapping his knuckles on the lectern twice before stepping down.

Members of the Wilson swimming community, including three students and two coaches, said the stalls would not be large enough to accommodate changing into “tech suits,” highly compressed swimsuits that require two people to put on. Two members of the girls’ swim team said they would not feel comfortable sharing a locker room with teenage boys.

“We will lose winners to outside our district if we go by this plan. It’s guaranteed, I’m already hearing parents talk about it,” said assistant coach Katie Rowe.

Some parents asked for a gender-neutral locker area to exist alongside traditional boys’ and girls’ rooms. Separating facilities in this way could be stigmatizing, the district responded.

Conspicuously absent from public comments were LGBTQ students. Christopher Covington, an organizer at Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network who has worked closely with students in Long Beach around this issue, said that many of the same teens whose advocacy led to these conversations now “don’t want to be the face of the campaign.”

Recounting experiences of harassment and bullying to strangers is emotionally exhausting in the best of circumstances, Covington said. But these students have now lived through a pandemic. They are struggling to keep their grades up, trying to get into college. “They don’t have the capacity or the interest in a very combative conversation that will drain them of their energy,” Covington said. And they are witnessing an unprecedented nationwide assault against their rights.

In 2021, a record-breaking 149 bills were introduced in state legislatures that would restrict the rights of trans people, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. As of late February, 159 such bills had been proposed in 2022. Most of those bills seek to ban trans kids from playing sports on teams that match their gender identities, or to criminalize providing gender-affirming care to minors.

In the Chino Valley Unified School District — just 35 miles east of Los Angeles — the school board narrowly defeated a resolution in November that would have excluded transgender students from using restrooms and locker rooms of their identified gender, a violation of the state’s education code.

Tony Thurmond, California’s superintendent of public instruction, announced plans in November to form a committee of students, educators, policymakers and advocacy groups to explore ways to expand the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms in K-12 schools. Thurmond said he first became aware that such access was lacking in October, when students on an LGBTQ History Month panel said they would go the whole day without using a bathroom because they felt unsafe. The Chino resolution intensified his concern.

Carla Peña, manager of professional development at Gender Spectrum, an organization that helps schools create gender-inclusive environments, said that the increasing politicization of trans and nonbinary youth has made speaking up feel unsafe. “Students and educators are much less likely to advocate for these facilities in this climate,” Peña said.

More than two-thirds of LGBTQ youth say recent efforts by states to limit the rights of transgender and nonbinary people have negatively impacted their mental health, according to a poll released by the Trevor Project in January.

Ultimately, Covington said, this is a public debate between adults.

“The things we want to see happen overnight will take years,” Covington said. “I personally believe that the district will make the right decision and move the plan forward.”

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