Commentary

Conway Schools should be embarrassed by anti-trans restroom policy, book censorship

Image of crowd of transgender and cisgender people

(Getty Images)

The Conway School Board earned a badge of shame Tuesday when it adopted two policies that will harm transgender youth.

One policy bans transgender youth from using restrooms not aligned with their assigned sex at birth. Gender nonconforming students made uncomfortable by this rule can opt to use single-use restrooms, but as one person noted during Tuesday’s meeting, many school buildings don’t have those.

The other policy requires transgender students on school trips to room with students of the sex they were assigned at birth.

A school district attorney told a reporter he knew of no other district in Arkansas with similar policies.

Adding insult to injury, the board ordered two books with LGBTQ+ themes removed from school libraries, despite a committee’s recommendation that the books stay on the shelves because of their educational value.

The board had been considering the policies for a month. An overflow crowd attended the Sept. 13 board meeting, where tensions ran high between supporters and opponents of the policies.

Tuesday’s meeting was well attended and featured speakers in support and opposition.

Interestingly, some board members who’d expressed concerns about inviting lawsuits and doing harm to some students in the September meeting apparently overcame their hesitation. Tuesday’s vote was unanimous.

A death threat

Supporters of the policies who spoke Tuesday included one man who declared that LGBTQ+ people “deserve death.”

State Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) expressed full support of the policies, saying, “God made males and females” and urged the board to “reject the lies about sex and gender.”   

Debra Hale-Shelton, a veteran journalist who reported on the meeting for the Arkansas Times, described the meeting thusly: “At times I felt as if I was at a Trump rally or a 1950s Pentecostal sermon on hellfire and damnation.” She wasn’t off the mark from what I’ve seen from various videos.

For anyone with any sense of human empathy or compassion, a live tweet of the meeting by a Conway resident backs up Hale-Shelton’s description of the atmosphere.

If you’re a parent or a grandparent of a transgender or gender nonconforming child, much less a transgender teen yourself, you know how painful this level of ignorance and bigotry is. You know how harmful the policies will be to children who may already be anxious about how they fit in the world and especially to children who are depressed or otherwise mentally fragile.

Studies point to not just the psychological harm but the physical impact — urinary tract infections, dangerous constipation — of prohibiting children from using gendered bathrooms that align with their identities. Teens who can use restrooms that match their gender identity also are less likely to be victims of sexual assault, according to another study.

A personal note

To the parents and others who spoke so passionately in support of the policies, I understand your anxieties and fears. Believe me, as the grandparent of a gender nonconforming teen and a transgender young adult, I understand. I understand many of you fear for the safety of your daughters if someone with a penis uses your daughter’s restroom. But I hope you understand my fear — of the likelihood that children I love will be subjected to physical and mental abuse from those who are afraid of difference.

I believe in loving and accepting people, especially children, for who they are and how they present themselves in the world. And don’t spout that claptrap about loving the sinner but not the sin. A person’s identity is not sinful.

I’ve had people tell me they just don’t like all this transgender stuff shoved in their faces. They ask why trans folk can’t just stay quiet and be less obtrusive, less visible. Some people in times past said the same thing about openly gay people and even Black people. Some people still might.

The thing is, visibility matters. If you cannot freely express who you are, if you have to keep yourself hidden so that no one acknowledges you exist, then your horizons are limited, your life restricted. Some people are shy, some prefer not to call attention to themselves, but most of us want to be recognized in positive ways for who we are. That recognition leads us to explore, learn and share with the world what we discover.

That should be enough to let people grow into the individuals they know themselves to be.

The moral panic that seems to have gripped the Conway School Board, if not the Conway community, highlights the need for education about gender identity and for adults to listen when children speak.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sonny Albarado, Arkansas Advocate
Sonny Albarado, Arkansas Advocate

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. Most recently, he retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years. He got his start in journalism as editor of the Nicholls Worth, the student newspaper at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1973. Nicholls awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters in 2014.

MORE FROM AUTHOR