The Meaning of an Illinois Transgender Girl's Choice About Whether to Change Behind a Curtain

By Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I discuss the case of a transgender girl's right to shower and change with the other girls on her sports team rather than being compelled by her school district (in Illinois) to change behind a curtain. I conclude that the school district is wrong to insist on treating the transgender girl differently from the other girls, but I propose that greater privacy for everyone on the team might be the best solution, given that many girls would rather not disrobe in front of their teammates.

I want to suggest here that the motivation of the school district was likely to protect everyone's privacy with what appeared to be a nuanced accommodation. This girl could play sports with other girls and could even change in the room with the other girls, albeit behind a curtain. The district may have assumed that this arrangement would be desirable not only from the perspective of the transgender girl's teammates but from her perspective as well. Indeed, the girl has indicated that she would probably, if given the choice, use the curtain to change after all.

To some, then, this whole conflict may seem like much ado about nothing. If the girl wants to have the same privacy that the other girls want to have from her, then how can there be said to be a harm? If she feels the same reluctance to be nude in front of them that they feel, then isn't it a waste of time to quibble over whether she can, if she chooses, do something different that she probably does not want to do anyway (i.e., change in the locker room without a curtain)?

The short answer is no, it is not a waste of time. Part of what a transgender girl experiences in confronting discriminatory treatment is the wish for autonomy. For her, life has long been about hearing that she is a boy when she experiences herself not as a boy but as a girl. One can only imagine the obstacles that she confronted on her way from being "accepted" as a boy, contrary to her perhaps-secret wishes, to being roughly tolerated as a girl. This journey has almost certainly been a very difficult and painful one, filled with people either explicitly or implicitly telling her who she is, what she must do, and who she must be.

Now, however, she has taken the brave step of announcing to the world that despite their assumptions, she is a girl. Knowing that many people would reject her announcement and either continue treating her as a boy or begin treating her as a misfit, she forged ahead and joined a girls' sports team. One hopes that she has thrived on this team and that her teammates have treated her with kindness and understanding, although it is likely that there have been some very difficult, awkward, and painful moments along the way. What she must therefore be craving now, perhaps more than anything else, is the autonomy to decide how she will express herself in her new identity and the willingness to accept her and her choices, whatever they might be. Under these circumstances, to be told that she must change behind a curtain would be devastating and infuriating, even if she would not mind that arrangement if it were offered to her as an option.

Some might say "this is sensitivity and political correctness run amok," but I strongly disagree with that sentiment. Take a simple example. Imagine that you boarded a train with one seat left, and you headed toward that seat and sat down.  You suddenly noticed someone who had been heading toward that seat, crying, and whispering to her boyfriend that she is so tired, she must sit down. At that moment, though you are tired too, you might be considering getting up and giving this sad woman your seat. Imagine, though, that before getting the chance to do so, the boyfriend came over to you and ordered you out of your seat. You would then likely feel, first, that now your choice was gone, and rather than receiving some credit for being generous, you would just be following orders if you gave up your seat. Next, you might feel like staying put, since you are, after all, entitled to the seat on a first-come, first-served basis, and who is this creep forcing you to get up? Regardless of how you ultimately decided to act, the boyfriend's order would have changed the entire experience of giving up your seat.

The same is probably true for the transgender girl. With an available curtain in the changing room, she might well have felt inclined to change behind it (just as perhaps other girls at different times of the day might also choose to change behind it). But then came the school district, telling her that she had no choice. Suddenly, an expression of autonomy and dignity becomes surrender to force  on behalf of the other girls' privacy (rather than, it seems, on behalf of her own).  I can understand why she would be angry and hurt by the school district's decision. And I hope, for her sake and that of the other girls, that she is ultimately given the option of choosing what will make her feel most comfortable in her new identity, and that the other girls accept that choice and treat her with the kindness that she so needs and deserves.