Transgender woman in Pinellas denied access to restrooms at PTEC

09/19/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: LGBT, discrimination, Pinellas County Schools, transgender, PTEC, U.S. Department of Education, education, ACLU, wmnf

The ACLU of Florida is asking the U.S. Department of Education to compel the Pinellas School district to broaden transgender rights in schools. The civil rights group filed a complaint this week on behalf of Alex Wilson, a transgender nursing student who was denied access to restroom facilities at her school for either men or women.

“Because I did not have the sexual reassignment surgery which costs about $20,000 to do and that if I used those restrooms I would have charges pressed against me.”

According to Wilson, the school’s move came after a student complained to administration. Wilson attends the Pinellas Technical Education Center in Clearwater. The school administration told Wilson she could only use a bathroom located inside a storage room.

“Basically, there was enough room for a toilet paper holder and toilet. You could turn around and sit and that was about it. There wasn’t even a sink in that actual bathroom. When you left that bathroom and opened the door to the storage room – because it was in the storage room, but it was in, like, a closet, pretty much – there was a sink, there was some cleaning supplies, storage, an old microwave with coffee cups just sitting on top of it. You could tell it was used for storage, but no one ever really used and they just kind of put a bathroom there for whatever reason.”

After some media reports, the school gave Wilson access to a faculty restroom, but she had to ask her instructor for the key.

“It was only later on that the key was then put behind the secretary’s desk for me to get, but I still had to get it in plain view of everyone else. So, they knew exactly what I was doing.”

Wilson has been living as a woman for four years. Her Driver’s License lists her as a female. She is classified as a female through the social security administration. But according to ACLU of Florida spokesperson Baylor Johnson, what qualifies this case as discrimination is the fact that Wilson was able to attend classes for months without being confronted about which restrooms she could or could not use.

“For months while she was attending classes at PTEC, Alex was being treated exactly the same by school administrators as any other student at the school. But once administrators found out that she was transgender, they started to stigmatize her and discriminate against her.”

The civil rights group is basing its argument on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 which prohibits gender discrimination. They’re asking the federal education body to investigate the case and have the Pinellas school district restore Wilson’s right to use the women’s restroom.

“But to also take some action to prevent things like this from happening in the future, to train district officials on the rights of students under Title IX including the rights of transgender students and to revise district policies to make sure that they’re in compliance with the federal law’s requirement preventing them from engaging in sex or gender discrimination.”

The ACLU of Florida sent a letter to the Pinellas County Schools administration asking to intervene three weeks ago, but according to Johnson, nothing substantive was done to solve the problem. David Koperski is a school board attorney. He couldn’t directly comment on Wilson’s case, but said the board has a minimum set of anti-discrimination policies.

“But they all, essentially, reiterate state and federal law. So they do say that our practices with respect to employees, students, parents, vendors, anyone we deal that they we will abide by federal and state law including not discriminating on the basis of sex. They do not specifically mention transgender.”

But even if the U.S. Department of Education intervenes and PTEC is forced to let Wilson use the women’s restroom again, it still leaves a whole host of problems. Gianna Love, a long-time transgender rights advocate in Tampa, said more education is needed to change false perceptions.

“People really think that trans women – they think of Buffalo Bill from Hannibal Lecter and all these really effed up presentations of people with gender dysphoria in the media as being basically, some type of violent, deviant person with sexual issues and it’s really just such a prevalent stigma.”

The student, Wilson, hopes this debate does more than just restore her own basic right to use a proper restroom; she wants to see changes across the board to broaden transgender rights.

“It’s very frustrating. It’s demeaning. My self esteem is already low. Going through transition, your self image of yourself and the way you get treated by everyone else when going through transition – you lose family, you lose friends, you lose jobs. It’s already enough just going through transition to then have this happen? I fought with depression for a couple of weeks.”

Requests for comment from the U.S. and Florida Departments of Education were not returned by deadline.

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