PORTLAND, Ore. — Parents at a rural Oregon high school have filed a federal lawsuit over the school district’s policy to allow a transgender male student to use the boys’ locker room and bathroom, mirroring a similar civil action in Illinois that did not survive a legal challenge.
The lawsuit filed this week in Portland challenges a decision by the Dallas School District to allow Elliot Yoder, now 16, to use boys’ facilities. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and Basic Rights held a news conference Thursday decrying the lawsuit and the ACLU said it would likely intervene in the Oregon case as it did in Illinois.
“The case targets transgender youth for simply existing and seeking an education,” said Mat dos Santos, legal director for ACLU Oregon. “This lawsuit is senseless and cruel but it is not a meaningful threat to the right of transgender students in Oregon.”
Herb Grey, an attorney for the parents of three current and former Dallas students, disagreed and said the district’s policy to allow Yoder into such private spaces violated the civil rights of the majority of the students who do not identify as transgender. Boys using the locker room and bathroom feel embarrassed and ashamed to have to disrobe in the presence of another student who was biologically female, he said.
“The key to this whole thing is not just the privacy and the rights of just one student. It’s the rights of all the students and their parents and you can’t interpret federal law and state law and impose it on everyone else and say you’re accommodating everyone — because you’re not accommodating everyone,” said Grey, the plaintiffs’ attorney.
The school has a gender neutral bathroom that Yoder initially used for changing before gym class, but he asked to use the boys’ facilities because the bathroom was two floors away from the locker room and other students noticed when he left to change.
The Dallas School District did not immediately return a call for comment.
The lawsuit names the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown because of guidelines issued by the state last year outlining what districts should do to accommodate transgender students. The guidelines are not the law but are based on numerous court opinions on transgender rights that have interpreted Title IX protections as extending to transgender students.
The lawsuit also names the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, although the Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era directive on transgender inclusion earlier this year.
Dallas, a town in a rural agricultural area 60 miles (96.56 kilometres) south of Portland, has a population of about 15,000 people.
The high school there first grabbed headlines in 2015 when the district sent a letter to parents saying it was accommodating one transgender male student by allowing him to use the boys’ locker rooms and bathrooms. The letter generated an uproar and parents packed into a school board meeting.
Yoder, then 14, attended the meeting and publicly identified himself as the transgender student in the letter during remarks before the board. Even with the school policy in place, he’s had trouble getting up the courage to use the boys’ bathroom and often waits to make sure it’s empty before going in, he said.
“What’s really troubling and what really scares me is this lawsuit,” he said. “When a transgender student is using the facilities that match their gender identity, the only person’s privacy that is being interrupted is their own because of everyone else’s concerns about it.”
Two years later after coming out, Yoder is living with an adoptive family that supports his identity and has a girlfriend.
A federal magistrate in Illinois last year sided against parents in Palatine, Illinois, who had sued under similar circumstances.
A Pennsylvania school district earlier this year settled a lawsuit brought by three transgender students who had been barred from using bathrooms that corresponded to their gender identity.