Ash and Melissa Whitaker
By David Sheridan
In order to use the boy’s bathroom in his high school—the bathroom which conforms with his gender identity—Ash Whitaker had to take the Kenosha Unified School District to court.
“I so admire the young people like Ash Whitaker who have the courage to stand up and fight for their rights—I feed off their courage,” says Bonnie Augusta, a retired teacher and longtime champion for LGBTQ students in Wisconsin.
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In a unanimous three-judge decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling that granted Ash Whitaker permission to use the boy’s bathroom in his Kenosha, Wisconsin high school. “I am thrilled that Seventh Circuit recognized my right to be treated as the boy that I am at school,” says 17-year-old Ash Whitaker.
“After facing daily humiliation at school last year from being threatened with discipline and being constantly monitored by school staff just to use the bathroom,” Ash Whitaker says, “the district court’s injunction in September allowed me to be a typical senior in high school and to focus on my classes, after-school activities, applying to college, and building lasting friendships,”
Ash Whitaker’s mom, Melissa adds: “Transgender people everywhere just want to be recognized and understood for who they are, No parents, no mother, no father, no family members ever wants to see their child go through discrimination.”
Coming on the heels of Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinding the Obama administration’s guidance on protecting students against gender identity discrimination, the Court of Appeals’ ruling gave LGBTQ rights advocates across the nation renewed hope.
“I think it most significant that the federal court based its decision not just on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, but also the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution,” said Augusta. “Now a transgender student has a constitutional right to be treated in accordance with the student’s gender identity.”
Frank Burger, co-chair of NEA’s GLBT Caucus, agrees with Augusta, and also points out that the Court of Appeals debunked the myth that letting trans people use the bathroom of their gender identity will harm others.
“The harms identified by the school district are all speculative and based upon conjecture, whereas the harms to Ash are well-documented and supported by the record,” wrote Judge Ann Claire Williams.
“I’d be celebrating even more,” says Burger, “but we still have a lot of work to do—people fear the unknown, and we need to educate them.”
Kenosha high school librarian Susy Siel sees the court’s decision giving educators in the district an opportunity to learn more about how creating a safe environment for all students includes respecting students’ gender identity. And Siel proudly notes that on the Battle of the Books reading program list for Wisconsin schools is I am Jazz, the book by transgender teen trailblazer Jazz Jennings.