It’s been a trying couple of months for Heidi Owens. The mother of five has a 10-year-old transgender daughter, DeeDee, and a nine-year-old transgender son, Karri, both of whom are being targeted by discriminatory policies at school.
“My daughter is coming home crying, not understanding why she’s punished, because she’s not allowed to use the girls’ bathroom now, even though she got to use it before,” says Owens. “‘Mommy, what did I do wrong?’ This is not acceptable, this is not okay.”
DeeDee has been barred from using the girl’s restroom in her public school thanks to a new policy adopted by the Marionville, Mo., school district. It requires transgender childroom to either use the restroom of their biological sex, or use a unisex bathroom near the nurse’s office.
Born prematurely, DeeDee has digestive problems that make it difficult for her to make it to the private unisex bathroom. Even with a doctor’s note stating that she needs to be able to use the closest bathroom, the school is inflexible. As a result, DeeDee has had some accidents, making the experience all the more humiliating.
“This is a daily function: You have to go to the bathroom on a daily basis,” says Owens. “I’m already having to take DeeDee to a urologist, because for a trans kid, there’s even more fear of using the bathroom.”
Owens and her wife Krystel — who is also transgender — moved their family from California to Springfield, Mo., four-and-a-half years ago, and then from Springfield to Marionville. Her children encountered no problems at Springfield schools, but Marionville has not been accepting. Even though the district has adopted other policies that could be considered transgender-friendly when it comes to name changes, requiring teachers and staff to use correct personal pronouns, and dress code, the district is adamant about keeping her children restricted to either the unisex bathroom or the restroom of their biological sex.
Even more concerning, she says, is the reaction from other members of the community. People have made jokes about her children or called them “perverts,” she’s received threats and hate mail, and some have even suggested that the state should investigate the Owens family because two of their five children are transgender.
“Nothing’s fishy. We just allow our kids to be who they need to be,” says Owens. “Is it something wrong because I love my children, and I only want the best and the same rights as other children? I only want what’s right, and so does my wife.”
Marionville is just one in a string of smaller public school districts across the nation that have adopted similar policies when it comes to restroom or locker room access, notes Sarah Rossi, the director of policy and advocacy for the ACLU of Missouri.
“I think what’s happening in Missouri, especially in rural areas, is the same thing that’s happening across the country, which is that school administrators and boards, instead of making an effort to understand transgender students, are having a knee-jerk reaction to privacy and safety scare tactics from those who would rather see transgender people ostracized from their communities,” says Rossi.
Rossi has seen local school districts in states throughout the country pass policies that attempt to circumvent federal law or departmental guidelines issued by federal agencies. That includes a recent ruling by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which stated that an Illinois school that barred a transgender female from the girls’ locker room had violated Title IX by engaging in sex discrimination. But from the ACLU’s perspective, the obligations of school administrators and school boards like those in Marionville and other small towns are clear-cut.
“It’s the duty of school administrators, school boards, and school staff to make their schools as safe as possible, and give all students equal access to all aspects of the school community and school life,” Rossi says. “If school administrators are scared of a backlash from a very vocal but small portion of the community who don’t want transgender kids in the school or in their child’s P.E. class, that’s something they need to get over. Because their duty is to protect all students, not just the students whose parents are the most vocal, or whose church groups are the most vocal.”
Owens has been consulting with the ACLU and intends to pursue legal action against the school district. It is the only way she feels she can force the district to amend its current policy.
“They have discriminated against my child, they have humiliated my child,” Owens says. “I will go as far as I need to go for my children. If I have to take it to the Supreme Court, I’m not scared. Nothing scares me when it comes to my kids.”