NEAR WEST SIDE — At a town hall meeting with a top CPS administrator, Whitney Young students were asking the tough questions last week.
Rosalina Torres, a senior at the selective-enrollment high school, asked CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson how CPS could better provide services for transgender and gender non-conforming students.
"Specifically, is it possible to have gender-neutral bathrooms in CPS to better take on these kind of issues?" Torres asked.
Jackson said CPS updated their guidelines this spring, stating schools will allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.
"In our policy, we made clear that they could use the restroom [of the gender] in which they identify with, which I think is a big step forward," Jackson said. "We had a lot of debate around whether we should have a unisex or transgender bathroom."
The CPS policy changes come as a national debate centers on transgender people, with some states passing laws that make it illegal for trans people to use facilities, including bathrooms, that match their gender identity.
But the new policy purposefully doesn't state whether a gender-neutral bathroom should be installed at CPS schools. Instead, that decision should be left up to individual principals, Jackson said.
"Although transgender students and teachers share one commonality, they are still a diverse group of people," Jackson said. "We don't want to restrict schools or people with guidelines."
'The time is now'
After the meeting, Torres said bathroom renovations are ongoing at school now, and a gender-neutral space for students is needed. Whitney Young's PRIDE and Acting for Gender Equality (AGE) clubs are lobbying Whitney Young Principal Joyce Kenner to implement gender-neutral bathrooms in the school.
"One of our students said it best. ... He is a trans boy. He can go into the men's restroom and use the facilities, but he still menstruates. There's a fear of being told that you are in the wrong place, kicked out, or not being allowed to use the restrooms," Torres said.
In addition to transgender and gender-neutral students, other students who simply felt uncomfortable using a large-stalled bathroom could also use a single-stalled bathroom.
Torres, who is headed to Boston University in the fall, identifies as a gender non-conformist.
"My mom calls me her girl-boy, it's actually quite hilarious," said Torres, who lives in Chicago Lawn. "I do not identify with women or men. I personally have taken a long journey to recognize my gender — much longer than my sexuality."
Torres is happy top CPS leaders are open to solutions.
"But the time is right now. Transgender rights is the next frontier in equality post-same sex marriage passage," Torres said. "The way I see it, if you don't start something right now, how is it going to happen in the future?"
Bathrooms at Whitney Young?
Kenner said she is meeting with the school's PRIDE club in the coming weeks to begin a conversation about bathrooms at the school.
"As a school we are going to have conversations that include the entire school community to determine what action is best for our school and how the new renovations might include some changes," Kenner said.
Kenner said the school did have a transgender student who graduated in 2015 who did not feel comfortable using either a boys or girls bathroom. In that case, the school designated a gender-neutral bathroom near the nurse's office for the student to use.
Whitney Young was the second school to embrace an organization that addressed homosexuality in a high school environment within Chicago Public Schools, Kenner said.
In October 2015, alum Miguel Ayala, one of Whitney Young's first openly gay students, returned to Whitney Young to discuss how he forced the administration to address gay issues on a broader scale, said Kenner, who was principal at the time. Ayala has served in President Barack Obama's administration, as deputy director of communications at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and is now working on presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Kenner and Torres agree that Whitney Young has a long history as a progressive school.
"Our school has always been really progressive, so I hope that Dr. Kenner will say, 'You know, you're right. Let's take this progressive step and model for other CPS schools what should be done,' " Torres said.
Whitney Young, named after prominent Civil Rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr., opened in 1975 as the city's first public magnet high school and consistently ranks among the top in the country. Alumni include First Lady Michelle Obama, star basketball player Jahlil Okafor, and Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the sibling creators of "The Matrix."
New CPS guidelines
Announced in May, the new CPS guidelines also clarify that trans and gender non-binary students can participate in overnight field trips and take part in physical and sexual health education with groups that match their gender identity.
Jackson told students at Whitney Young on Thursday that the old guidelines needed to be updated.
"School should be taking the lead on making it more comfortable and more accessible for all students to come to school, specifically our transgender students," Jackson said.
CPS' support for trans students also extends to students who are gender non-binary or who are questioning their gender identity, the district said.
Faculty and staff should use the names and pronouns that match students' and employees' gender identities, according to CPS guidelines. Not respecting a person's identity can result in consequences for employees and students.
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