Judge Denies Equal Locker Room Access For Transgender Student, Cites Illinois Law
A transgender student from Palatine who had sued her high-school district for full and unrestricted access to the girls’ locker room lost in court on Thursday.
A Cook County Judge Judge Thomas Allen ruled against Nova Maday, an 18-year-old senior in Township High School District 211 in the northwest suburbs.
Maday was born a boy but has lived as a girl for at least three years.
She sued the district last fall in a bid to win unrestricted access to the girls’ locker room. It is the district’s second big case involving a transgender student fighting for locker room access. District 211, with schools in Palatine, Schaumburg, and Hoffman Estates, is the largest high school district in the state.
WBEZ education reporter Linda Lutton explains the judge’s ruling and its implications.
On what is allowed regarding locker room access in District 211
The district allows transgender students like Maday to use the locker room or bathroom facility that matches their gender identity. Nova was offered that access.
But the district requires that transgender students agree to change behind privacy stalls in the locker rooms — and transgender students are the only students who must agree to use these stalls when changing.
Maday and her lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union argued that ostracized her. It felt like discrimination and segregation.
On the judge’s decision
Judge Allen called this case the “balancing act of all balancing acts.”
He seemed sympathetic to the fact that the school district faces demands from transgender students like Maday, who want broader access.
But the district has also been sued by a group called Students and Parents for Privacy. That group doesn’t want transgender kids in the locker rooms at all. They say transgender students should use private bathrooms.
“Schools should never be forced to give male students unrestricted access to areas where girls are changing clothes,” said Thomas Brejcha, chief counsel for the Thomas More Society, which represents the District 211 privacy group. “Claiming a female gender identity doesn’t change that.”
The judge made his decision based on a strict reading of the Illinois Human Rights Act, which is meant to prohibit discrimination. Generally, the act guarantees “full and equal access” in all settings.
However, the judge pointed to a 2010 amendment to the act that applies only to schools. That language guarantees access, but not “full and equal” access. The judge said he couldn’t guess why Illinois lawmakers made a distinction for schools, only that he was basing his decision on the plain language of the law.
On how the various sides reacted
The school district said the decision upholds the balance it’s been trying for in serving all its 12,000 students. Superintendent Dan Cates said the district has “an unwavering commitment to respecting all students, while also safeguarding student privacy.”
The ACLU said it was extremely disappointed in the decision. Spokesman Ed Yohnka said it brought up a bigger question.
“After years and years of hard-fought efforts to ensure that we have a Human Rights Act that protects against discrimination in the state of Illinois ... we [are] now being told there is a place where that discrimination is permitted, and that is in our public schools,” Yonka said. “And I think that is something that frankly ought to alarm people.”
On what the ruling means for Maday, as well as for other school districts and transgender students
For Maday, it means she won’t get to take gym class in this last semester of her senior year — at least not with access to the locker room in the way she wanted.
“All I want is to be accepted by my school for who I am — a girl,” Maday said in a statement issued after the ruling.
Thursday’s decision reaffirms the practices in School District 211, but it has no impact beyond the district.
That's actually a difficult situation for school districts. Many find themselves confronted with similar issues — balancing demands for access for transgender students with privacy concerns brought by other parents or students.
The Obama Administration had given school districts guidance about accommodating transgender students. But that guidance was retracted by the Trump Administration.
There are other, similar cases to Maday’s around the country. They’re in state courts and federal courts, and these courts are sometimes issuing conflicting decisions.
Many school districts have said they would like the courts to weigh in on this, and they’d like a definitive decision.
Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.