President Obama’s instructions to public schools to allow students to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity reflects a debate across the country.
But thanks to state legislation passed in 2011, Massachusetts already has those protections in place for its public schools. For many students in Massachusetts high schools right now, the new rules are the old normal.
Zachary Kerr’s biological sex at birth was female, but he has no memory of ever feeling like a girl. He realized his gender identity was male, and began transitioning at 14. That was in 2009—before Massachusetts state rules regarding transgender bathroom access in schools were in place.
"School bathrooms were always a challenge, and a very anxiety-ridden place for me," Kerr said.
Kerr says that he appeared male when he went to high school in Methuen, but he still used the girls’ bathroom.
"I was often getting told on, I was getting made fun of for being in the girls’ bathroom, and I just knew it wasn’t the place I was supposed to be," he said.
So Kerr would go all day without using the bathroom. Even after state access laws had gone into effect, he said he’d been through too much trauma to deal with the bathrooms. But by his senior year, with the support of the school, Kerr was using the boy’s locker room.
At Lexington High School, there have been multistall bathrooms designated as all-gender since last fall.
Senior Lucy McNeil seemed surprised the topic was of any interest.
"I mean, obviously there were some people who were like, 'It’s weird,'—but for, like, a week," McNeil said. "Then everyone was like, 'It’s really fine.' And that was it."
Another senior, Minna Gorry-Hines is a member of the Gender & Sexuality Alliance, a pro-LGBTQ rights group at the school.
"I think in a town like Lexington that’s definitely a lot more progressive than a lot of the country, I don’t think it’s been an issue for kids," Gorry-Hines said.
It has, though, been an issue for kids at other schools.
Tatiana Lopez, a member of the Gender Equality Club at Springfield High School, says they experienced resistance when they first asked for more inclusive bathrooms.
"We had to go to our school center decision-making team and ask for permission, and we did that last school year, and they said ‘no,’ basically," Lopez said.
So Lopez and her friend Tiffany Adon began a campaign to educate school officials about transgender students’ rights under state law.
"So me and Tiffany did our research, we brought the law in, and then they said, 'Yeah,'" she said. "And now it’s been two months we’ve had it and it’s being used every day and people love it."
Not every student in Springfield is accepting, according to Sarah Nwafor, a fellow student and president of the Gender Equality Club.
"There’s still cases of harassment where students will say things like, 'You don’t belong in that bathroom,' or, 'What do you mean you’re trans? You’re the gender you were born with.' Just ignorant comments like that."
Kerr no longer has to face comments like that, but he advises the Massachusetts Safe Schools program on how to help other LGBTQ students. He says the hope that they won’t have to go through what he did makes his own memories easier to bear.