Bathrooms & Transgender Students

May 16, 2016

In this lesson, students learn about the controversy over new federal guidelines aimed at ensuring that "transgender students enjoy a supportive and nondiscriminatory school environment." Students explore their own responses to it, and discuss how they can make their school welcoming to transgender students.  

To the Teacher:

Please carefully review the lesson in advance, consider the topic, and assess your students’ readiness to engage in a discussion of this issue.  These guidelines for discussing transgender issues from the Anti-Defamation League might be helpful.  You might also review our guidelines for discussing controversial issues.

Before opening up the discussion with students, familiarize yourself with transgender identity and issues (if you aren’t already familiar), and read this glossary of terms  from ADL, which is included in the lesson below. 

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • learn about transgender identity and issues, including the controversy about public bathrooms
  • brainstorm how to make their school safe and welcoming for transgender students
  • take action toward transgender equity



Tell students that public bathroom use has recently become a controversial political topic. Ask them what they have heard or read about laws regarding public bathroom use. Accept student answers and write them on chart paper or the board. If you see inaccurate items or items that suggest a lack of understanding, explain to students that throughout the lesson they will return to this list and correct any inaccuracies or misunderstandings.

Before students can engage in meaningful discussion about transgender issues, they need to be familiar with the meaning of "transgender" and other related terms.  The Anti-Defamation League defines "transgender" this way: 

An umbrella term for people whose gender identify differs from the sex they were assigned at birth and/or whose gender expression do not match society’s expectations with regard to gender roles.... Transgender people may or may not choose to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.

You might also share with students this glossary of terms, either by printing and distributing it, or by posting it on a chart in the classroom. If you think it would be useful for your students, read aloud each term and definition, clarifying any confusion.  The definitions may be helpful in dispelling misconceptions that students expressed earlier.  Make the corrections on the chart you made with students at the beginning of the lesson.



The News & our Reactions

Explain that on May 13, 2016, the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Education issued a directive to public schools across the country to allow students to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, even if that identity does not match the gender identity they were assigned at birth. 

The directive is not a law, so schools are not required to abide by it. But those who support transgender rights see it as a strong show of support from the Obama administration.  Officials said they issued the guidelines in response to inquiries from educators, parents and students asking for clarity on the issue.  Many schools across the country, including New York City's public schools, have had similar guidelines in place for several years, with few if any problems. But some politicians, education leaders and others opposed the new guidelines, arguing that the federal government had overstepped its authority. 

If students would like more information about the guidelines, give them the opportunity to read this New York Times article about it.

Give students a chance to react to the guidelines by writing for one or two minutes. Explain that they do not need to share what they have written; the writing is just for them to clarify their responses.

Ask volunteers to share their thoughts or feelings. Accept everything students share, taking time to provide information that may clear up misunderstandings. 

The Controversy in North Carolina

Now expand your focus from the directive about school bathrooms to the bathroom situation in North Carolina.

In a recent speech, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the laws defining who may use which public bathrooms and the Justice Department’s responses to those laws are "about a great deal more than just bathrooms."

Ask students what else the issue is about. Urge them to think about access to public places as a right that people have in the United States. Again, if something comes up that corrects a misconception on the chart the class compiled at the beginning of the lesson, make the correction.

Then share the rest of Lynch’s statement about the larger issues involved in the controversy:

This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them - indeed, to protect all of us.  And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country - haltingly but inexorably - in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.

Ask students to reflect on their knowledge of history and current events. What steps has the country taken to ensure "fairness, inclusion and equality"?

Class Brainstorm

Ask students to brainstorm answers to this question:   How can we make our school safe, respectful, and welcoming for transgender students?

List the actions that students identify.  Ask students to consider both actions they could take together and actions they could take as individuals. Discuss the steps they need to take to put these ideas into practice. Tell students that the class will return to this action list in the coming weeks to see what progress they've made in improving the school climate for transgender students.

Return to the chart with which you began this lesson. Ask students to change any remaining questions or misunderstandings, and add any new information they have learned so that the chart is accurate and complete.


Exploring In More Depth

The following activities have students look in greater depth at North Carolina’s law, known as HB2, and the Justice Department’s response to it.

1. North Carolina House Bill 2

If you would like your students to learn more about the bathroom controversy, summarize North Carolina’s HB2 law this way:

North Carolina passed a law, known as HB2, that requires people to use the public bathroom that corresponds to the sex on their birth certificate. Ask students to use their understanding of the term "transgender" to answer the question:  How do you think HB2 will affect transgender people?

Remind students that once the government passes a law, it is also responsible for enforcing it. Ask: How do you think the government will enforce HB2?

If you want to make this a civics/primary-source activity, instead of explaining HB2, have students read it at this link. Have them use the following to guide their reading of the law.

  • Summarize the "Whereas" section of the bill.
  • What does the term "biological sex" mean in this bill?
  • What does the law say about who may use which bathroom?
  • Use your understanding of the term "transgender" to answer the question: How does HB2 affect transgender students?
  • How do you think the government will enforce HB2?


2. The Justice Department on North Carolina’s HB2

The U.S. Justice Department announced that it will file a civil rights suit against the state of North Carolina because of HB2. Watch this video of Attorney General Loretta Lynch explaining why. Show the 7-minute video, or have students read the text here.

Provide the following questions before students watch the video or read the speech to help provide direction to their listening or reading.

  • After Attorney General Loretta Lynch summarizes HB2, what does she say about how it relates to U.S. federal law?
  • Why did North Carolina sue the Department of Justice?
  • How is the Department of Justice responding?
  • What historical examples does Lynch cite as evidence that this kind of backlash against civil rights progress has happened before?
  • What does Lynch say to the people of North Carolina?
  • What does she say to the transgender community?

Divide the class in half. Assign each group one of the following quotes from Lynch’s announcement. Have each group discuss the meaning of the quote, and respond to it based on their knowledge of transgender identity and issues, civil rights, and American history. Ask each group to share its main ideas with the rest of the class.

Quote 1:

By passing HB2, "the legislature and the governor placed North Carolina in direct opposition to federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity. More to the point, they created state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals, who simply seek to engage in the most private of functions in a place of safety and security - a right taken for granted by most of us."

Quote 2:

"Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself. Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward. Please know that history is on your side. This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time. It may not be easy - but we’ll get there together."