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For Mass. High School Students, New Transgender Rules Are The Old Normal


OK, to Massachusetts where public schools are not racing to comply with President Obama's instructions for bathrooms and transgender students. That is because Massachusetts already has those protections in place and has for nearly five years. NPR's Arun Rath has been talking with young people who've grown up in the Massachusetts system.

ARUN RATH, BYLINE: Zachary Kerr's biological sex at birth was female. But he has no memory of ever feeling like a girl. He realized his gender identity was male and began transitioning at 14. That was in 2009, before Massachusetts state rules regarding transgender bathroom access in schools were in place.

ZACHARY KERR: School bathrooms were always a challenge and a very anxiety-ridden place for me.

RATH: Kerr says that he appeared male when he went to high school in Methuen, about half an hour from Boston. But he still used the girls bathroom.

KERR: You know, I was often getting told on. I was getting made fun of for being in the girls bathroom. And I was just - I just knew it wasn't the place I was supposed to be.

RATH: So Kerr would go all day without using the bathroom. Even after state access laws had gone into effect, he said he'd been through too much trauma to deal with the bathrooms. But by his senior year, with the support of the school, Kerr was using the boys locker room. For many students in Massachusetts high schools right now, the new rules are the old normal. I visited Lexington High School, where, as of last fall, there have been multi-stall bathrooms designated as all gender. I talked with some seniors about what it was like when the new bathrooms appeared. Lucy McNeil seemed surprised the topic was of any interest.

LUCY MCNEIL: I mean, obviously, there was some people that were, like, it's weird, but - for, like, a week. And then everyone was like, it's really fine. And that was it (laughter).

RATH: Another senior Minna Gorry-Hines is a member of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, a pro-LGBTQ rights group at the school.

MINNA GORRY-HINES: I think, you know, in a town like Lexington that's definitely a lot more progressive than a lot of the country, like, I don't think it's been an issue for kids.

RATH: Though it has been an issue for kids at other schools. Tatieana Lopez is a member of the Gender Equality Club at a public high school in Springfield. She says they experienced resistance when they first asked for more inclusive bathrooms.

TATIEANA LOPEZ: We had to go to our school centered decision making team and ask, like, for permission. And we did that last school year. And they said no, basically.

RATH: So Lopez and her friend Tiffany Adon began a campaign to educate school officials about transgender students' rights under state law.

LOPEZ: So me and Tiffany did our research. We brought, like, the law in, and then they said yeah. And now it's been, I think, two months that we've had it.

TIFFANY ADON: Two months.

LOPEZ: And it's being used almost everyday, and people love it.

RATH: Not every student in Springfield is accepting, according to fellow student and president of the Gender Equality Club, Sarah Nwafor.

SARAH NWAFOR: There's still, like, cases of harassment where students will say things like you don't belong in that bathroom, or - what do you mean you're trans? You're the gender you were born with - just ignorant comments like that.

RATH: Zachary Kerr no longer has to face comments like that. But he advises the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program on how to help other LGBTQ students. He says the hope that they won't have to go through what he did makes his own memories easier to bear. Arun Rath, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Beginning in October 2015, Arun Rath assumed a new role as a shared correspondent for NPR and Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH News. He is based in the WGBH newsroom and his time is divided between filing national stories for NPR and local stories for WGBH News.