New Paltz High School now has two gender-neutral bathrooms available for student use. It was a non-controversial decision that was intended to be put into place as an administrative action, but due to an oversight it was not addressed until high school student Aryn Wesdorp collected signatures on a petition and presented them at a board of education meeting. The decision is welcome by Wesdorp and other students who don’t feel they conform to gender binary norm.
Pronouns and gender
It’s impossible to even interview someone who identifies as transgender or otherwise outside traditional ideas of gender without first discussing the problem with pronouns. These little words are intended as a shorthand that can replace names and other nouns in the course of conversation, and they serve that purpose quite effectively with one exception: pronouns carry with them an assumption about gender, and if it’s not clear whether an individual is male or female, it can get quite awkward.
Formal English has no gender-neutral singular pronoun, although it’s common — but technically incorrect — to use “they” if one is referring to a generic person and the gender is irrelevant, such as in this example: “If a person pockets a pen without capping it first, they may get ink in their pants.” Whether or not an English teacher would accept that construction, it nevertheless is an indefinite pronoun; when speaking about a known individual that doesn’t fit either gender, there’s really no official solution. The problem has existed ever since the notion that “he” as an acceptable generic for men and women alike was rejected.
The convention that’s being adopted by transgender individuals — those people whose gender identity doesn’t conform to their biological sex — is to select a set of pronouns that feels most suitable. While that flies in the face of pronouns being a generic shortcut that can be used without much thought, use of preferred pronouns means that the individual is not misgendered. Thus a transgender boy, who has female anatomy but presents as a boy, is likely to ask to be called “he” or “him.” It gets more complicated because not every transgender person necessarily identifies as the opposite gender at all. Genderfluid individuals, for example, may identify as more masculine or feminine over the course of time; agender individuals, by contrast, don’t feel that either “male” or “female” ever feels quite right.
Because there are a variety of gender identities, there are also many different pronouns. Some prefer neologisms like the Spivak pronouns (e/em/eir/emself/eirself), or sets based on zhe, hir, per, thon, fae and co; others try to adapt existing English pronouns such as they, it, and one.
Aryn Wesdorp prefers the pronoun “they” for referring to themself, and will be referred to as such during the course of this article. “I chose ‘they’ because it’s neutral, no matter how I’m feeling,” they said. While they understand that it can be challenging to remember one’s preferred pronouns, they said being misgendered can be quite hurtful.
The bathroom decision
Wesdorp, a member of the high school’s Pride Alliance club, said they decided to tackle the issue of bathrooms because they knew it would help them and some of their friends feel more comfortable. “It felt like something a leader would do,” they said, and they desire to be seen as a leader.
The same solution probably could have been accomplished by simply asking school principal Barbara Clinton, according to club advisor Lisa St. John, but Wesdorp “wanted to do it big.” She said that Wesdorp was nervous about presenting the petition to board members, but was pleased by the positive response.
That response was characterized by Superintendent Maria Rice expressing shock that gender-neutral bathrooms weren’t already a reality. As Rice explained, that was because she had thought she’d finalized that very detail last summer. “I take full responsibility,” she said. After attending a law conference that touched upon gender issues, she had toured the schools with other administrators to identify accommodations that could be made. “We had identified the bathrooms, but I never gave the directive to do it.” When Wesdorp broached the issue, all that was needed was to retrofit the doors to ensure privacy while allowing for access in an emergency, and to get new signage.
While the specific needs of transgender students are not precisely the same as those with orientations other than heterosexual, the issues of orientation and gender can and do overlap, making them natural allies. St. John said that the Pride Alliance is large for a gay-straight alliance; it has about 20 active members and that’s been the case for awhile. “It’s been very busy, and very active, for about six years,” she said. It’s a far cry from when she taught in Scottsdale, Arizona, and needed to obtain guidance from the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in order to help students even create such a club, despite that right being protected in law.
“Here, our administration is very proactive in terms of LGBTQ rights,” she said. “It’s such an amazing relief.”
That’s reflected in the student body, St. John said, the members of which she characterized as “mature” and a “very accepting community,” leading to the idea of gender-neutral bathrooms being “obviously a non-issue.”
Superintendent Rice said that she did receive two calls from parents who were concerned or confused about the broader question of accommodating the gender identity of students, which included privacy curtains installed in locker rooms and awareness that a child has the right to use a gendered bathroom which conforms with that individual’s gender identity. Since neither one called back after having a conversation about the implications, Rice assumes that it’s not a worry for either of them.
There have been transgender students attending New Paltz schools for years, the superintendent said, and this has just been a shift from accommodating them individually to doing so systemically. It was intended to be “ahead of the curve,” but for the snafu with changing those bathrooms. Embracing the diversity in the schools, she said, is “part of our guiding principles as a district.”
It was a different story in the Highland district when a transgender child requested accommodation in one school. There were many questions, and Rice said that superintendent Deborah Haab did an excellent job in holding a forum on the subject and having the district attorney there to explain the legal requirements that school administrators must obey. That has since become the model for how these questions are being addressed in other schools, now that they have become a central topic in the news.
“Children are far more accepting than adults,” Rice said.
If the level of acceptance seen by St. John and Rice were equally evident at the student level, Wesdorp might not have taken it upon themself to circulate a petition in the first place. They opted to use the girl’s room even when they would have preferred the bathroom for boys in part because some students called them names when they did enter the boy’s room. “They’re graduating this year,” Wesdorp said, meaning that that problem at least is behind them.
However, “It’s not that easy to be accepted,” they said, “even in as progressive a town as New Paltz. Some people don’t understand it,” and question whether it’s just an attempt for attention. “Their words can hurt you,” they said. “Not everyone is as open-minded as they should be.” They recounted the plight of a friend — now in college — whose mother kicked him out over the question of gender identity.
Overall, it’s transsexuals — those individuals who desire or have had medical assistance to transition between male and female — who are most likely to be subject to verbal and physical assault, but transgender people in general have still not achieved even the same level of societal acceptance as homosexuals. Wesdorp discovered the term “genderfluid” online with a friend a couple of years ago, and immediately felt it conformed with their identity. There are days when they feel quite masculine, but from time to time, “On the spur of the moment, I feel really girlie.” For Wesdorp, though, there are no plans for any medical intervention: “I’m fine with my body, thanks.” Other than fashion choices, the most outward sign of their gender identity is the name Aryn, which they devised by shortening their birth name.
Wesdorp and their friends do consider the bathroom issue a victory, even though unbeknownst to them it was in the works all along. Sometimes, great minds run along the same channels.