2017-05-04

Confusion, Embarrassment, Humiliation, and Loss of Decency

Let's do semi-local semi-current events.

The Boyertown Area School District, located maybe an hour away from where I live, is being sued over transgender rights, but not by or on behalf of a transgender person, as has happened in numerous places where such rights have been denied. No, in this case, the suit is attempting to squash such rights, as a boy known only as "Joel Doe" claims to have felt "confusion, embarrassment, humiliation, and loss of dignity" at what he calls "sexual harassment" and an "invasion of privacy" after allegedly seeing a transgender boy—whom we'll refer to as "T" for convenience since neither an actual name nor an alias have been reported—in the locker room "wearing nothing but shorts and a bra".

So, in short, it sounds an awful lot like Joel was watching other people changing, saw something he wasn't expecting to, and had a freakout over it. I'd say I don't mean to trivialize it, but I don't think I can honestly make that claim. It's sounding pretty trivial from here. On the other hand, I've also seen the suggestion that he doesn't actually care all that much, and his parents just pressured him into this, but since I have no way of knowing either way, I'll make no further mention of that and just comment on the facts of the case as they have been reported.

Let's start with those words and phrases I quoted from the claim. Confusion? Fair enough. Bras don't often turn up in boys' locker rooms, so that's an understandable reaction to seeing one. Confusion, though, is hardly unusual or remarkable, nor is it harmful in itself. Embarrassment? I'd be embarrassed, too, if I caught myself overreacting like that, but somehow I doubt that's at all what he meant. As for humiliation and loss of dignity... how? And due to what, exactly? There haven't been any allegations that T, or anyone else for that matter, was picking on Joel, or making a scene, or watching him change, or even aware of him. Where, then, could any humiliation and loss of dignity come from, if not Joel himself? And as for sexual harassment and invasion of privacy, well, if anything, Joel was the one who sexually harassed and invaded the privacy of T, and quite possibly other students as well, since, by his own admission, he couldn't keep his eyes to himself.

Joel also claims that he's too distressed by the thought that he might encounter someone of the opposite sex to use the school bathrooms regularly. In a way, that's a clever addition. Along with emotional distress, the risk of medical problems from avoiding bathrooms all day is an argument transgender advocates have successfully used in the past. Turnabout's fair play, some would say. But if turnabout's fair play, then maybe it would be fair to tell Joel he should just go see a psychologist about his issues and not expect anyone else to humor him, as those who would call transgenderism a mental illness often say about trans people. Regardless, it doesn't take much thought to realize that it's actually quite disingenuous for someone in his situation to try to co-opt this argument. Joel does not look or, as far as we know, feel out of place when he uses the facilities that correspond to his designated biological sex, nor does he put himself in any particular danger by doing so. Joel has never been barred from using the facilities that are intended for people who socially live out the same gender that he does. Joel has not been treated like a girl or told that he belongs in a room full of girls despite his presumable certainty that he is not a girl. Joel has not been singled out by any rules, policies, or practices. Yet what he is attempting to do, just because the presence of a single person upsets him, would force other people to face all of those things.

Meanwhile, few of the other students seem to have had even vaguely similar reactions. However, three others, who also choose to go by aliases, have since joined themselves to the existing lawsuit. "Mary Smith" was purportedly distressed when she "saw a male student washing [his] hands in the sink", though she doesn't offer any explanation as to why she assumed the student was male, much less how something so innocuous could disturb her so deeply. Like Joel, "Jack Jones" claims he "saw a member of the opposite sex in the locker room with him", but like Mary, fails to make even Joel's token effort to explain why he believed that's what he saw. The way the account of this event reads, with "classmates gesturing and looking at something behind him", makes it sound just as likely that someone was just clowning around and the whole incident had nothing to do with this issue. And "Macy Roe" simply brings up the same vague dread of encountering someone of the opposite sex that all the others profess, without so much as going to the trouble of claiming any incident at all that might conceivably have triggered such a response. This all strikes me as a strange obsession with what other people might have out of sight and out of relevance in their pants, to the point of disregarding anything actually observable, such as appearance, behavior, or anything else that might have any practical significance. And have they all forgotten how little unlocked doors actually do to stop people from entering rooms? Any girl could walk into any boys' facility at any time, and vice versa. Again, I'd say I don't mean to trivialize all this, but I don't think I can honestly make that claim.

Joel also claims that he was not taken seriously and was denied any reasonable accommodations when he approached the school administration about ensuring his privacy. Unsurprisingly, the school district disputes his account of the meeting. In other circumstances, this could turn into a matter of his word against theirs, except that in this case, Joel has left us solid reasons to question his credibility. For one thing, both the school district and Aidan DeStefano (a transgender boy currently attending the school who has, with the ACLU, filed a motion to intervene, and refreshingly isn't going by an alias) insist that the locker rooms have both lockable toilet stalls and curtained changing cubicles that anyone can use for additional privacy. Now, I haven't been to look, of course, but that seems like it would be easy enough to verify, so while I wouldn't argue against additional measures to give more privacy options for everyone, I can't imagine that they're simply making up what certainly sound like privacy accommodations and seem reasonable enough—certainly more reasonable than anything I ever encountered back in high school, when the closest we got to privacy when changing involved avoiding the busier areas of the locker room, wearing longer shirts for a little extra coverage, being quick about it, and hoping no one was watching. Furthermore, even the officially filed complaint admits that Joel was told he could change in the nurse's office, though it tries to portray that as just another indignity. Maybe any accommodation short of kicking T out of the room counts as "unreasonable" to Joel, but if he was willing to misreport something so basic and so easily disproven, that makes it that much more difficult to believe any of the claims he's made about the meeting. Unsurprisingly, this hasn't stopped numerous outraged trans-hostile retellings, or even reports that in theory ought to be more neutral, from taking him at his word.

Speaking of claims that have been made, the school district also reports that T has stated, and faculty has confirmed, that he habitually wears his gym clothes under his normal school clothes, and simply removes the school clothes for gym, without taking anything else off. That would mean he never wears anything less than a full set of gym clothes in the locker room. Yet Joel claims to have seen a student "wearing nothing but shorts and a bra". There are only three ways to make sense of this:
  1. Perhaps, on some occasion, T didn't do as described, and Joel happened to spot this specific student during the brief time of partial undress during this rare occurrence. Keep in mind that the locker room contains, according to the school district, "upwards of 60 students" and "upwards of four supervising adults" during gym periods, and presumably has rows of lockers that would block any one person's view of more than a fraction of those. In addition to that, Joel ought to be minding his own business regardless, especially if he's as concerned with privacy as he says he is. That seems like a lot of unlikely events that would all have to line up, not to mention that I'd be consistent about that sort of thing if I were in T's shoes. Even so, it's still a possibility.
  2. Joel never saw a student wearing a bra in the locker room, is misrepresenting his reasons for believing that there was a transgender student there, and made up the story of his immediate reaction, presumably in an effort to win sympathy for his position. In short, it's possible that Joel isn't being any more honest about this than he was about the school administration not offering any accommodations. I'm not trying to make an accusation, exactly, but when one explanation calls for multiple assumptions that involve unlikely coincidences, while another takes only a single assumption that fits well with known facts, guess which one is more likely to be correct.
  3. Joel did see a student in shorts and a bra, but this student wasn't T at all. Someone else, presumably not even transgender, was wearing a bra or similar garment, maybe for medical reasons, maybe on a dare, maybe in an attempt to get a reaction out of someone like Joel, maybe for the thrill of it, maybe just because. I have to say this possibility intrigues me the most, partly because it would mean Joel was reacting to something that doesn't actually have anything to do with any transgender students, and partly because I would so totally do that if I were a boy in his gym class—though, admittedly, I wouldn't have had the daring when I was actually in high school, and hadn't even heard of transgender as a concept at the time anyway. Which is regrettable for a number of reasons, but I digress. Regardless, if I could be one of those students, though with the knowledge and experience I have now, I'd try my best to get every last non-Joel boy in the class to wear a sports bra, just to underscore how silly it is to me that anyone would jump from seeing a bra to feeling oppressed and filing a lawsuit. It turns out that karyotype can't stop a person from putting on a piece of clothing.

Meanwhile, the possibility of any of the other dozens of students in the room eyeing Joel simply doesn't concern him, somehow. It would be easy enough to infer that, but I don't even need to—the official complaint states it outright: "Joel Doe, Mary Smith, Jack Jones, and Macy Roe do not object to students of the same sex using private facilities with them, and welcomes them no matter how they self-identify their gender, and they have no expectation of privacy from such students" (emphasis added). Based on that, the school could throw T and Aidan in with the girls, and even if they spent the whole time gawking, none of the plaintiffs would care. And if some genetic male—cis boy, trans girl, nonbinary, gay, straight, bi, ace, or whatever—were staring at Joel the whole time he was changing, or if dozens of them crowded around to watch, that would be no cause for complaint either. They could even film the whole thing if they wanted to, and their superficial anatomical similarity to Joel would make that perfectly acceptable to him. That is what "no expectation of privacy" means, isn't it? Yet the plaintiffs do have a problem with people simply going about their business and using the facilities appropriately without paying undue attention to anyone or causing any trouble, solely because of certain biological differences that they're never going to have cause to observe or otherwise interact with in any way. Call me crazy, but if you're genuinely interested in protecting your, or anyone else's, personal privacy, not only does this not make sense, it's completely backwards.

It's also curious that the district administration reportedly hadn't heard anything about any supposed problems until the lawsuit. If this were really about people just wanting to preserve their privacy, you'd think someone would have at least tried complaining to the administration or school board before resorting to legal action, even if they expected it to fall on deaf ears.

Also, regarding the suggestion that Joel use the nurse's office... One of the more common refrains I've seen in comments supporting Joel—the ones that aren't just personal attacks against T in particular and transgender people in general, anyway—asks, with evident indignity, why he should have to be the one to go elsewhere. Well, isn't he the one demanding more privacy? It only makes sense that if you're the one who feels as though you need more privacy, then you're the one who should be offered the option to go someplace where you can have it. Which is all that this is: an option that he has been offered. Despite how the reactions are often worded, no one on staff has demanded, or even so much as requested, that he go anywhere. If he's being treated any differently from any of the other students, it's only because he specifically asked to be. Though, to take a less gracious tack, if you're the only one causing a disturbance, which also seems to be the case here, you shouldn't be surprised if someone does ask you to leave. By all accounts, including Joel's, T has raised no fuss and done nothing improper, unless you regard simply being in the same room at all as improper. The school district evidently doesn't. Neither does a mounting volume of case law. Neither, it would seem, do all but a small handful of the other students. And I honestly can't understand why Joel does.

Maybe Joel and the others honestly feel like they're the victims here, never mind that it makes no sense to me to think so. But let's be clear about something. If looking at someone who's minding their own business makes you feel uncomfortable, the problem is yours.


The Boyertown Area school district has made both the legal complaints they have received and their own responses available at: https://www.boyertownasd.org/domain/1395

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