Eighteen-year-old Elissa Ridenour, like every other student at the Pine-Richland School District in Pittsburgh, PA, has never had a problem using the bathrooms at school that matched her gender identity.
That was until last month, when the district's school board passed a resolution, first introduced earlier this year, that forces trans students to use unisex bathrooms or bathrooms corresponding to the gender they were assigned at birth:
Ridenour, who came out as trans in eighth grade, told me that until September this year she felt accepted and supported at school. Ridenour, along with Juliet Evancho and a third trans student at the school who is not identified in the lawsuit, is suing the school district, superintendent Brian R. Miller, and principal Nancy Bowman. The lawsuit, filed Oct. 6, alleges that the school district is violating trans students' rights under Title IX and their right to equal protection under the Constitution.
"It feels very difficult because I know I identify as that and I see myself as that so to be told I’m something different, and to be controlled in that way makes me very sad. I just want to live out my senior year and then move on," she told me.
The suit claims that at times she has avoided using the bathroom at school altogether because the school's policy makes her feel scared and uncomfortable:
"In September we got called in for a parent-student-faculty meeting and they told all the trans kids we would have to either use the unisex restroom or the restroom that goes along with what we were assigned with at birth," Ridenour said. "After that I actually cried because you’re fighting this for so long and it’s really frustrating to have to sit there in board meetings and have people talk about you and hear them call you things that isn’t you."
Nationally, allowing trans people to access the restroom that's consistent with their gender identity has become a contentious issue after North Carolina passed a bill prohibiting trans people from using their preferred public bathrooms. The Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against the state in May this year.
The school district's decision is a step backwards for trans rights in a state where many schools are beginning to pass trans-inclusive policies in line with the Department of Education's letter of guidance earlier this year urging school districts to be trans-inclusive, Ridenour's lawyer, Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, of Lambda Legal, told me.
"It’s completely out of line with the trend nationally about recognizing and respecting transgender students’ rights and treating them in accordance with their gender identity," he said. "The reality is that in the past year, over a dozen school districts in Pennsylvania have adopted affirming policies that are similar to the existing practice at Pine-Richland before this vote. This is the only school district that we know of in Pennsylvania so far, and the first to be sued, that has done the complete opposite."
Ridenour thinks it comes down to lack of understanding on the part of parents who don't know much about trans people. "I would say that people need to educate themselves. We’re not monsters, we’re just trying to be normal human beings just like their sons and daughters," she said. "I think it’s because they don’t really know a trans person. Because if you know a trans person then your whole world really opens up."
The teen continued: “My life has been a whirlwind ever since this discrimination happened, and I feel we don’t have time to step back and educate, which is what we need to do.”
She told me she hopes to study pre-med to become a doctor or nurse. But this experience has left her feeling less optimistic about what the future could hold for her as a trans woman.
"I think basically right now we’re transgressing back to the 1960s where there were black and white water fountains," she said. We’re being segregated."
The Pine-Richland School District did not respond to a request for comment.
This post has been updated to accurately reflect Gonzalez-Pagan’s name.
Update, 12/14/16: This post has been updated to include Juliet Evancho’s name.