When the dismissal bell rang at 2:55 p.m., hundreds of young people rushed out of Santee Educational Complex in South Los Angeles. But a few kids lingered near the entrance. As the building emptied, the small group became more visible. Soon they formed a picket line and began pacing back and forth.
They were staging a protest.
Days before, according to witnesses, a janitor at the high school had raised her arm to physically block a student from entering the girls’ restroom. The janitor kept her arm up until one of the 20 students watching the scene unfold spoke out to say the student being denied access to the restroom had indeed been born a female.
“I was shocked. I couldn’t say anything,” said the student, a junior at Santee who goes by his last name, Alonzo. “No student should feel that way, especially not from a staff member,” he said about the incident, adding that the janitor later apologized.
Alonzo, 16, recently started to share with his classmates that he identifies as a transgender male. He says he has dreams of becoming a registered nurse one day to help people like his mother, who lives with arthritis, and his brother, who was born with a disability. When he’s out of school and in public, he uses men’s restrooms. But at school—when he absolutely has to use a facility—he continues to use the girls’ restroom because he say he does not want to make anyone uncomfortable. He said he also was concerned about being harassed.
Now a student group at his school has rallied behind Alonzo’s request to turn one of the school’s girls’ restrooms into a gender-neutral facility. In addition to their protest in front of the school, the students have put up campaign posters around campus, and they say they’ve collected more than 700 signatures from schoolmates who support their proposal.
As legislators in two dozen states consider bills that would ban transgender people from using restrooms that match their gender identity, school officials have been directly confronted with the issue of bathroom access. Across the country in schools like Alonzo’s, there is a “student-led push” for more gender-neutral facilities, said Ginna Brelsford, co-executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, an organization that works with youth-led LGBT rights groups.
In North Carolina last week, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill into law that forces transgender students to use restrooms and other facilities inconsistent with their gender identity. Such policies essentially block trans people from using public restrooms at all—they’re not allowed use facilities that match their gender identity, and they feel unsafe using the facilities that correspond to the gender listed on their birth certificates.
Other states considering "bathroom laws,” include Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, according to the American Civil LIberties Union. Earlier this month, South Dakota’s governor vetoed a bathroom bill that had passed the state legislature.
Lacking access to a restroom can have lasting and tragic effects. According to a recent study, “denial of access to [bathrooms and campus housing] had a significant relationship to suicidality” among college-age trans people, “even after controlling for interpersonal victimization.” Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24.
“Access to gender-neutral restrooms can affect emotional wellbeing and academic performance at school if [LGBT youth] have to worry about using the bathroom during the school day,” said Brelsford, of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.
For Alonzo, access to a gender-neutral bathroom “would make me feel more comfortable, because I won’t have to think twice about which restroom I use,” he said during a phone interview with Fusion.
"We're not asking for all the restrooms to be converted. We’re asking for one of the existing restrooms to be transformed into a gender-neutral restroom," said Jose Lara, the dean of students at Santee Education Complex and and the faculty advisor to the school's Gay-Straight Alliance chapter. "It would cost whatever the sign costs.”
But converting an existing restroom into a gender-neutral restroom is more complex than replacing a sign. State regulations mandate students have access to segregated facilities, but not gender-neutral facilities. If the school were to meet the student’s demands and convert a girls’ bathroom into a gender-neutral restroom, it would have to ensure it still meets the requirements for segregated facilities.
In 2005, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, implemented a policy that allows transgender students to use restrooms that match their gender identity. A 2013 California law also mandates that trans students be allowed to use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity. But the state does not mandate training for school staff members to comply with the law. “It’s the responsibility of the school site administrators to inform staff [about the regulations,]” said Dr. Judy Chiasson, program coordinator for human relations, diversity, and equity at the Los Angeles Unified School District.
A district spokeswoman said the district currently has no gender-neutral restroom facilities but that students can use single-stall facilities generally located in the nurse’s office. Some transgender students have challenged school districts that only allow gender nonconforming pupils to use facilities in the nurse’s office, arguing it can be an undue burden since students can miss more class time and they have to explain to peers why they’re visiting the nurse’s office. The Department of Justice has sided with the students in previous investigations.
Of the nearly 2,100 students enrolled at the Santee Educational Complex, 93% are Latino and 6% are African American, according to the latest data available on the school’s website. The school says all of them are economically disadvantaged. On the national level, transgender Latinx and multiracial K-12 students face the highest levels of harassment and bullying by school staff members, according to a national 2011 survey conducted by a group of transgender rights organizations. Latinx transgender individuals were also more likely to be denied bathroom access than other races.
“Any student will be able to go to a gender-neutral restroom. It doesn’t matter who you are,” said Johnny Ramos, a senior member of the GSA at the Santee Educational Complex.
Ramos, 18, said he became homeless when his parents kicked him out of the house for being gay, and it’s important for him to have access to a restroom without being bullied. He said a gender-neutral restroom would help gay students like himself feel safe.
“I usually try to go to the bathroom with friends, but once you go through the doors and are inside, you go separate ways, and that’s where I get pushed, harassed, name called,” said Ramos.
The principal at Santee Educational Complex, Dr. Martin O. Gomez, told Fusion school administrators are open to considering converting one of the restrooms into a gender-neutral facility. He said a decision will be made by mid-April.
“I’ll be out out of the school in a year, but other students who come to school will have a safe space to go to on campus,” Alonzo told Fusion.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the student Alonzo.