Advocates say Superintendent Tom Horne’s bathroom recommendation ‘others’ transgender students

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is advising Arizona schools not to create policies that allow transgender students to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity. Some schools already have policies in place that support trans students. (Photo by Kiersten Edgett/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Jessie Jordan, an 11-year-old at West Elementary School in Coolidge Unified School District, told her mom she wanted to be called a girl when she was 2 years old.

Jessie now identifies as a binary gender, wears dresses, has long hair and can practically run a marathon in high heels, said Johanna Jordan, Jessie’s mother.

“It’s like we’ve never had a son, she’s always been our daughter,” Johanna Jordan said. “If we are at a restaurant, she just goes to the girls’ bathroom, like there’s nothing other than a girls’ bathroom to us.”

But, when the fifth grader is at school, she uses the nurse’s bathroom, which her mother prefers because she feels Jessie will be safer there than the girls’ bathroom.

“I’m more afraid of what they’re (other students are) going to do to my kid than what my kid is going to do,” Johanna Jordan said.

Using the nurse’s bathroom was Johanna Jordan’s idea, who talked with the school principal and Jessie’s teachers about keeping her safe. Some of her classmates refused to refer to her as a girl.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne advised Arizona schools in a press release on Aug. 17 not to “initiate a policy that allows biological boys to use bathrooms, locker rooms or shower facilities that are intended for girls.” He went on to say: “Biological boys who expose themselves to girls could be violating indecent exposure laws and (be) subject to arrest.”

Some school districts already have policies that specifically allow students to use bathrooms aligned with their gender identity, including Mesa Public Schools and Tempe Union High School District.

TUHSD’s full guidelines are not public, but “a transgender student shall not be required to use a restroom or locker room that conflicts with the student’s gender identity,” according to a spokesperson from the school district.

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Mesa Public Schools’ public Guidelines for Support of Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students say transgender students participating in sex-segregated school activities must be allowed to use facilities that are consistent with their gender identity. According to the guidelines, schools may not “require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so.”

The Coolidge district where Jessie is enrolled does not have information regarding the use of bathrooms for transgender students in its student handbook. Coolidge did not return a request to comment.

Tami Staas is the executive director of Arizona Trans Youth and Parent Organization, a volunteer-run organization that provides a safe space for families with gender-diverse children. She’s also a third grade teacher at Summit Academy in Mesa Public Schools.

Staas has never heard of a situation where a transgender student assaulted another student in a bathroom, but she said she has received calls from parents about their transgender children who had been assaulted in restrooms by cisgender students.

“The narrative that’s playing out is to remove our children from the conversation, to remove them from society by denying them access to gender-affirming care, by denying them access to gender-affirming surgeries, by denying them access to gender-correct documents, and it’s exhausting,” Staas said.

There is no state ban on transgender people’s use of bathrooms or facilities in Arizona, though several other states ban transgender people from using public facilities that align with their gender identity in K-12 schools or other public places, according to a map from Movement Advancement Project.

Horne said in an interview that he issued the recommendation for Arizona schools because he received a number of phone complaints from parents who said they would remove their daughters from school.

“I got complaints from parents and they were really upset at the idea that boys could go into the ladies’ room,” Horne said in an interview. “For right now, I was just giving my advice and warning the schools.”

Horne couldn’t quote a specific number of calls he received from parents, though he said a “young lady told me that she was shocked that she was undressing in a locker room and on the next bench someone was undressing with male equipment.”

But he said that person is no longer a student and that the incident happened “in the last few years.” Horne also said he does not know of any laws that have been broken.

Horne recommended schools set aside separate facilities for transgender students – or let students use faculty bathrooms.

“Schools can provide separate facilities – even small ones that are open to either gender – that meet the needs of transgender students without compromising the dignity of others,” Horne said in the Aug. 17 statement.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said he received a number of phone complaints from parents about bathroom policies but couldn’t specify a number. (Photo courtesy of Tom Horne)

But transgender advocates like Staas say that even without a formal policy mandate, issuing a statement like Horne’s can make students feel attacked.

“The problem arises when our superintendent decides to go after a certain population, like our trans students and other them,” Staas said.

Staas recommended that families concerned about their children using the same bathrooms as a transgender child should have their children be the ones to use the alternative bathrooms, such as a nurse’s bathroom.

Grace is transgender and a sixth grader at an elementary school in the Chandler Unified School District and uses the nurse’s bathroom at school. Cronkite News is not using her last name or other identifying features to protect her privacy.

Grace said she feels comfortable using the nurse’s bathroom.

Chandler Unified School District does not have any policies regarding the use of restrooms for transgender students.

At an after-school program, Grace uses the girls’ bathroom – only after a faculty member checks the bathroom for other students and places a chair outside the door so no one can enter while she is inside.

Grace said that didn’t bother her, but when she uses the nurse’s bathroom at school, she has to walk across campus, past at least one girls’ bathroom, sometimes missing large chunks of class time.

“If they don’t have room for one (separate bathroom facilities), they could use the faculty bathroom, where anybody who wants to because they’re a transsexual can go, but they should not allow boys in the girls’ bathrooms,” Horne said in an interview.

The term transsexual is now considered outdated or offensive by some, according to the Trans Journalists Association’s Stylebook and Coverage Guide.

For both Jessie and Grace, their schools know about their gender identities and have been supportive, their mothers said, noting that using separate restrooms was not what exposed their identities to the school’s population.

Next year Grace, who has experienced bullying at her elementary school, will be going to junior high school, a place where not everyone knows about her gender identity, so using a separate bathroom may risk outing her to her peers, said her mother.

LGBTQ+ youth – especially transgender and nonbinary young people – report high levels of bullying, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide, according to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit dedicated to ending suicide among LGBTQ+ youth.

In Arizona, 54% of trans and nonbinary youth reported seriously considering suicide in a 2022 survey by the organization. Its 2023 national survey found trans and nonbinary young people who reported having access to a gender-neutral bathroom at school reported attempting suicide less than those who did not.

For transgender and LGBTQ+ advocates who point out that accessing bathrooms that align with a student’s gender is important for students’ mental health, Horne says his message calling for the use of a separate bathroom allows students to preserve their dignity and not offend any other students.

“The trans students have been harassed, the trans students have been bullied. The trans students have been the ones that have been marginalized. And I think the picture that Tom Horne is trying to paint is the other way around,” Staas said. “From my understanding, that is a false narrative that he is trying to play out.”

News Reporter, Phoenix

Alyssa Bickle expects to graduate in May 2024 with bachelor’s degrees in journalism and mass communication and political science and a minor in urban and metropolitan studies. She has interned at The Copper Courier, reported for The State Press and Mesa Daily Independent, and is an assistant research analyst at ASU’s Center for Latina/os and American Politics Research.

Kiersten Edgett(they/them/theirs)
News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Kiersten Edgett expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in journalism. Edgett works as a research aide for ASU’s Media Enterprise and is a DJ for Blaze Radio.