Girls from a swim team in New York City’s Upper West Side are too scared to use the women’s locker room at a Parks Department swimming pool. In March, a sign appeared noting that everyone has the the right to use the restroom or locker room consistent with their “gender identity or gender expression.” Around the same time, the girls, who range in age from about seven to 18, became concerned after they saw a “bearded individual” in the women’s changing room.
They are now using the family changing room to change in and out of their swimsuits, but it is not big enough for all 18 girls.
The complexity of this situation reveals some of the struggles that public institutions are facing as they implement policies that aim to ensure the rights of transgender individuals. And now these issues are about to go national. On May 13, the Obama administration warned public schools that they must allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender with which they identify.
Even in states that have had more progressive gender identity policies in place for a while, like New York, unforeseen headaches have arisen. Not all restrooms are alike. A bathroom with individual stalls that offer some privacy, for example, is different from a locker room or changing room. A locker room in a school is different from a changing room in a public facility such as a recreation center or local pool, which people of all ages use at the same time.
In some locker rooms, girls who are exquisitely self-conscious about their bodies—and often uncomfortable about the opposite sex—are going to change before playing sports. Meeting the needs of those girls and of trans women in various stages of gender transition can pose logistical issues. And lastly, ensuring the rights of transgender people to claim their identity without having to prove it, while taking into consideration the sensitivities of young people can be extremely problematic.
The Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center is in that position. It offers a lot of youth sports: basketball, hockey, a class called “Teen Toning.” And it has its own swim team, with about two dozen members, more than half of whom are girls. Several times a week, the pool is reserved for the Swim Team program, which, the Center says, “provides swim team training and competition for youths 6 – 18 years.”
According to one mother of a swim team member, Ellen Vandevort, her daughter was just leaving the locker room in late April when a person who was bald, with heavy stubble and a towel at waist level, stepped out of the shower. Her daughter and the younger girls on the team, says Vandevort, grew alarmed and reported it to the swim coach who suggested that the girls change in the family shower room.
An employee at the center who spoke on condition of anonymity says the individual using the locker room appears to present as a man—wearing swim shorts or trunks to swim, with sideburns going down into a beard—which is partly what alarms the girls and their parents. Staff members have also been warned that asking individuals to prove their gender identity would be discriminatory. “Our hands are tied,” the worker said.”We can’t say anything about it.”
The sign posted outside the locker room in March that affirmed the right of anyone to use the facility that corresponds with their gender identity also noted that “individuals cannot be asked to show identification, medical documentation or any other form of proof or verification of gender” and that anybody “who abuses this policy to assault, harass, intimidate, or otherwise interfere with an individual’s rights” can be prosecuted.
The Parks department says this has been its policy since 2002. “NYC Parks has long followed the NYC Human Rights Law allowing transgender individuals to utilize our facilities in accordance to their self-identification,” says Crystal Howard, an NYC Parks Department spokesperson. Where there are disagreements, as in this instance, the department usually finds an alternative room, in this case the family change room.
However, there is only one shower head in that room, and there are 18 girls who need to use it, say parents. Vandevort, who is not opposed to the new bathroom laws, would nonetheless like the center to set aside half an hour after youth sports, when any adults not accompanying a child are prohibited from using the bathrooms. Similar rules are already in place at many playgrounds, which can only be entered by adults if they are accompanied by a child, and at New York City’s outdoor pools, where everybody in the pool area must be in a swimsuit, even if not swimming.
“My concern is not so much this particular incident, or the law, as much as what measures the city has implemented to protect all vulnerable New Yorkers,” says Vandevort. “It concerns me that the Parks Department has rules in place that bar adults from entering playgrounds unless they come with children but is allowing those same adults—strangers—to shower and change clothes in the presence of naked vulnerable children.”
Community activist Mel Wymore, who was chairman of the 69th street Recreation Center task force that brought about the restoration of the Gertrude Ederle facility and who is a trans man, as well as the parent of a daughter, says more dialogue is needed, as people’s attitudes towards gender begin to change. “I’ve never heard of anyone [in the trans community] who wants to make other people uncomfortable,” he says. “I can say from my own personal experience transitioning that it’s uncomfortable to be in a restroom where you know people are uncomfortable.”
Wymore adds that he uses the men’s restroom, but chooses to use the family changing room in the Gertude Ederle center rather than the men’s locker room for exactly that reason. “Locker rooms are an area where we are going to have to have conversations about how to design a space where everyone feels comfortable,” he adds. “It’s an uncomfortable time and we have to be patient with each other.”