Transgender and gender-queer high school students told Wisconsin lawmakers a bill regulating the use of school restrooms would have a severe negative impact on their mental health, while the head of a conservative Christian organization called the alternative a "social experiment."
The Assembly Education Committee heard testimony Thursday on a bill introduced by Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, that would require school boards to designate school restrooms and locker rooms for use by one gender exclusively. In other words, transgender students would be not be allowed to use the facilities that correspond with their gender identity.
Kremer said he believes the bill is necessary because the Obama administration is trying to impose its will on schools by saying children have to shower and change clothes in front of other genders.
The bill would require a school board to provide "reasonable accommodations" for a transgender student to use a single-occupancy changing room or restroom.
"My mental health would be flushed down the toilet I’m not even allowed to use," said Leo Hilliard, a 15-year-old freshman at East High School who identifies as transmasculine. "I know this bill is supposed to protect trans students, but it would do the exact opposite."
Supporters of the bill argue the proposal isn't designed to be discriminatory.
Julaine Appling, head of the conservative Christian group Wisconsin Family Action, said the bill gives "appropriate, reasonable, common-sense protections and accommodations to all students," singling no one out.
Appling said private facilities like bathrooms and changing rooms are not the proper environment to seek validation for a cause.
"It is a social experiment that borders on child exploitation," Appling said.
Appling's group worked closely with Kremer in drafting the bill, and is the only organization registered to lobby in favor of it.
Lee Webster, a Wausau-based social worker, testified in favor of the bill, echoing Appling in his argument that "the locker room or bathroom is simply not a place to experiment" with gender or sexuality.
Webster argued that children who do identify with their biological gender could suffer emotionally from sharing a changing room with someone with genitalia that is opposite of theirs. He likened it to a form of bullying.
But several East High School students told the committee of their own experiences being bullied when they used the bathroom of their biological gender. They celebrated the addition of a multi-stalled, all-gender bathroom in their school.
Aden Haley-Lock, a 14-year-old freshman at East High who uses the pronouns they, them and their, said they suffered several panic attacks the last time they used their biologically-gendered bathroom. The all-gender bathroom isn't perfect, Haley-Lock noted, adding that students sometimes urinate or spread feces on the walls.
Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, asked Haley-Lock what their preference would be in a perfect world: using a unisex bathroom or using the bathroom for their gender identity.
"In a perfect world and a perfect school, I think that I would probably want to use the male bathroom because I identify as a male," Haley-Lock said. "I don’t feel safe doing that right now."
Noah Anderson, a junior at Madison East who uses the pronouns they, them and their, said the bill would force them to use the women's restroom — a place they don't feel safe. Anderson recalled using East High's all-gender bathroom for the first time.
"That moment was the first moment I felt like my school had any desire to help me. This bill wants to take that away," Anderson said.
The bill requires students seeking accommodations to do so with a request from their parents. Several students who testified said that could be problematic and even dangerous for closeted children or children whose parents aren't accepting of their gender identity.
Joanne Lee, the mother of a transgender teen who recently committed suicide, pleaded with lawmakers through tears not to move the bill forward. Her son, Skylar, died in September at age 16.
"Please listen to their voices," Lee said.
Representatives from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the School Administrators Alliance both voiced their groups' opposition to the bill.
They argued the bill usurps local control in favor of a "one-size-fits-all" approach. The bill would also force school districts between following state law and current interpretation of federal anti-discrimination policies, they said.
WASB has drafted policies regarding transgender students with the Shorewood and Menasha school districts, allowing transgender and gender nonconforming students to use restrooms corresponding with their gender identity.
"All those fears of what else is going to go in there, I’m not sure where those are concocted," said Menasha Superintendent Chris VanderHeyden of time spent in the bathroom.
Kremer said his bill "encourages a safe, private and dignified learning environment for all students, not just a few."