AUSTIN, Texas — Each morning, Joanna Smith’s 7-year-old son pulls on a T-shirt and shorts, boasts how fast he can tie his sneakers and heads to school. An honor-roll student who loves science and spelling, he often stays after class to run on the playground with his large group of friends.
But teachers may soon have to disrupt his routine by revealing a secret: This energetic boy was born a girl. Legislation headed for passage in the Texas Legislature this month could forbid him from using the boys’ bathroom and effectively divulge his transgender identity to classmates.
“He would be very embarrassed and ashamed to be outed,” said Smith, who plans to pull her child out of school if the measure is adopted. “I worry so much that it would just ruin his life.” She spoke on the condition that her son’s name would not be used.
The measure poses an excruciating dilemma for Texas schools that have quietly agreed at parents’ requests to keep secret the birth genders of some students.
To comply with state law, teachers might have to send transgender students to the bathroom of their birth gender or to a single-occupancy bathroom, shocking their peers.
The legislation “really boxes in school systems,” said Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, a spokeswoman for the national transgender rights organization Trans Equality.
A broad bill requiring transgender individuals to use the restroom of their birth-certificate gender passed the Senate but stalled in the House. Supporters revived it late Sunday, advancing a proposal applying only to the state’s public schools, which educate about 5.3 million students. That’s the second-largest number in the U.S. after California.
The final details of the measure are still being worked out. A similar law in North Carolina was partially repealed this year after protests and boycotts. Comparable proposals have been offered in other legislatures, but none has been approved.
Currently, each school and school district determines how to handle students whose birth genders are secret — a small portion of Texas’ thousands of transgender minors. A survey conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA indicated that 13,800 Texas teens identify as transgender, but the number of children under age 13 is not known.
Some districts have nondiscrimination policies that explicitly include gender identity. Others have no formal policy but still shield students on a case-by-case basis.
Faculty at Smith’s school declined to discuss their treatment of her son. But Lindsey Pollock, a principal in another school in the district, said she tries to stick up for children, even under legal and political pressure.
“This has never been an issue,” said Pollock, who said she has always allowed transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice in her 17 years as a principal. “The problem is the adults looking to make it a problem.”
Just last year, a transgender girl entered kindergarten in Pollock’s Garden Montessori elementary, asking to keep her background secret.
“We introduced her as she identified and treated her as a girl,” Pollock said. “She just has a different anatomical structure, but she’s a girl.”
Still, Pollock said, if the bill passes, the district would seek a way forward “that would be least injurious to the children.”
“It’s all hypothetical now,” she said of the legislation. “People get all worked up because they’re thinking from a sexual perspective, but children are innocent. They just want to go to the bathroom.”
Smith is just one of many mothers weighing what’s next for their transgender kids.
Teresa, who spoke on the condition that her last name would not be used, said her 12-year-old transgender daughter faced verbal attacks when she transitioned in 2nd grade. She escaped by changing schools.
“We had a couple of parents come to the school saying, ‘I hear there’s a boy going to the girls’ room,’ but the administration said they took the safety of all their children as priority,” she said. Her daughter, who is now in middle school, “is stealthy. I think the only people who know are her teachers and the principal.”
The Houston district has the state’s oldest and most comprehensive nondiscrimination policy for transgender students.
“We’ve always chosen to keep the most vulnerable safe,” said Anna Eastman, president of the district’s board of trustees, who has testified before the state Legislature against the bathroom bill.
But teachers at most Texas schools that are hiding students’ birth genders are too afraid to take a public stance and are bracing for a crackdown by the state.
Lauryn Harris, an advocate for transgender children in San Antonio’s public schools, said teachers have expressed “great empathy and concern” for students but have also been warned to change their practices.
“One teacher has received a political threat from her boss that they must do what is decided in the Legislature,” Harris said. “Administrators are afraid to talk about it outside the school, and I have to sign nondisclosure agreements.”
That’s partly because many Texas parents get anxious at the idea of their children sharing a bathroom with a transgender child.
Miranda Shugart, a mother of four in the small northern Texas town of Whitesboro, said she is concerned about “safety” and “harassment” and that the “bathroom situation should be more strict than it is.”
She doesn’t want her third-grade daughter “going to the bathroom all normal and happening to see somebody’s penis,” Shugart said. “Most of the time, it’s not going to be noticeable, but kids mess around a lot especially in places like bathrooms, where they’re together and there’s not always adult supervision.”
Texas Rep. Ron Simmons, who authored a House version of the bathroom legislation, said the measure was not meant to discriminate against transgender individuals but to preserve practices that he believes have worked in the past.
“We want to make sure we treat them with respect and dignity as we have the past 150 years,” he said.
For Smith’s son, respect means being treated as a boy — in all regards.
“He doesn’t want to be different,” Smith said. “He wants so badly just to be a very regular little boy.”
Her son, born as one of twin girls, began saying at age 3 that “he was the brother. He was a boy,” Smith said.
“He’d go pick out boys’ clothing, and I’d let him wear it,” Smith recalled. At age 4, he started asking whether his voice would get deeper and whether he would get facial hair when he grew up. “And he said he didn’t like his name and wouldn’t use it in school.”
So in kindergarten, Smith’s child became a boy, with short hair, male pronouns and a new name. Teachers stayed mum about his past, as did his twin sister. He uses a stall in the boys’ bathroom.
Smith, a therapist who was inspired to work with other transgender children after having her son, said she would sooner move her family back to her native Massachusetts than allow her child to be “outed” by teachers.
Ann Elder, whose 11-year-old transgender son, Benjamin, is a straight-A student in the suburban Houston town of Friendswood, said she would homeschool him to avoid “having him humiliated every day in front of his classmates.”
“It would be inhumane to make him go to the girls’ bathroom,” Elder said.
Her son used to start playdates by saying, “Hey guys, I’m a teenage boy, and I’m going to be the captain of the pirate ship.” When he was 6, a child psychiatrist confirmed he was transgender. His personality “just blossomed,” Elder said, after she bought him a new male wardrobe. He changed schools, and the new administration agreed to keep his birth gender secret.
Her son plans to come out as transgender as he gets older. This summer, he will travel to Washington, D.C., with his father to lobby for transgender rights.
“Right now he’s living a sheltered life,” Elder said. “His friends are happy because they think there’s nothing different about him.”
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