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VIEWPOINTS After East Aurora: The next steps
by Christina Kahrl
2012-12-26

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Every so often, we're confronted with how badly something can go wrong. Witness what has happened in Aurora, Ill. In October, the East Aurora school board tried to be conscientious in extending the same rights every other student enjoys to trans and gender-nonconforming kids. Three months later, that positive step has been repudiated after the school board surrendered to the pressure exerted by Illinois Family Institute (IFI), an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center appropriately labeled a hate group.

Like any train wreck, it became a spectacle—one that provides encouragement to those who would roll back the rights that we should be able to take for granted. What public meetings were held were vehicles for bigotry the school board lacked the courage to quash. Some trans* activists report being accosted both inside and outside the meetings, and what police protection was provided was apparently more inclined to help pack the room with IFI's supporters than fulfill their duties.

And now, it may seem as if we might have to fight this battle in every school district statewide. If so, the East Aurora school board has set a negative example no one should soon forget: How not to protect the children whose care they're entrusted with, how not to serve taxpayers (instead of risking litigation they'll lose) and how not to formulate policy that simply conforms to state law, especially where public accommodations like restrooms and locker rooms are concerned. The takeaway from East Aurora isn't that one school board is stocked with amoral cowards; it's that local authorities can be cowed by a hate group into violating the law.

That said, this is where activists made their own mistakes. From this point going forward, we need to be ready to talk about and push back on public accommodations. The issue may already be settled law in Illinois, but scaremongering about trans folk using restrooms proved easy for IFI and its ilk. But for all of the concern voiced over trans people as perverts or predators, it is an entirely made-up threat: Since January 1996, when the Illinois Human Rights Act became law, there have been no incidents of trans folk doing any of things they've been accused of, no peeping toms, no stalking—nothing. Not in Illinois and not in the entire country, for that matter. Take it from me: All we trans folk want to do is the same thing everybody else does in the restroom—we all gotta go.

For all of the advances in LGBT rights made in this state in the past 16 years, think of what this precedent means: Equal rights already acknowledged can be traded away by those in local government who lack the courage to protect them. Admittedly, trans folk are the easy target, because ours is the smallest community within the LGBTQ spectrum, but do not think for a minute that it will stop there. Our fight is your fight.

This is why this is one battle that we should not be fighting school district by school district, potentially leaving Illinois with an administrative thicket of compromises on childrens' safety or surrenders to any clique of locals panicked by politicized bigots. We should not submit to the spectacle of another school board haggling with a hate group over how to avoid obeying the law.

Instead, we'll need action from Springfield and from the state board of education, to provide positive guidance to school boards to spare them from getting it wrong. We should settle this now, because we do not want be formulating policy ad hoc, in reaction to the individual circumstances of students already in the school system. As new as this challenge may be for educators and families, we should be acting now to protect the future of the growing number of trans kids coming out earlier with the benefit of the support of their parents.

Some of this is a matter of anticipating the inevitable. Every school district in the state is eventually going to have its first trans student, and—given how kids like to fit in whatever their differences—its first trans student-athlete. As a society, we owe it to every one of them to get it right, now.

From my own experience, I remember when one of my cousins, a middle school teacher, contacted me when she learned she would have her school's first trans student in one of her classes: How should she treat her? My cousin was fortunate—she had a family member who's trans to reach out to. Most teachers don't have that benefit, and won't. How well will they be able to handle treating trans students in their classes if the only guidance they're getting comes from the likes of a school board like East Aurora's?

Christina Kahrl is an out trans woman, a board director of Equality Illinois and a member of Human Rights Advisory Council for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. She's also an editor for ESPN.com and a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.


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