Transgender Identity, Public Locker Rooms, and Leadership Fail

Pot is not the lone controversy in Washington state these days.

At Evergreen College, a 45 year old student named Coleen Francis is at the heart of a firestorm concerning the boundary between gender identity discrimination and child indecency.

The logic of the controversy?

  • Coleen is a student and as such uses the student locker room for the purposes of changing and showering after a swim or workout.
  • Elementary aged, Jr High, and High School students use the same locker room as well as parents of these students.
  • Oh, and Coleen is a transgender.  Meaning, she is anatomically male.

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Now, let me make a few initial disclaimers.  First, I am sympathetic to someone like Coleen. The life of a transgender is a tough one for numerous reasons.  There is a constant internal conflict.  One’s perceived identity is not the same as one’s anatomical identity.  I had several transgender friends growing up and their lives were marked by constant abuse, pressure, and tension.  It breaks my heart and it breaks the heart of Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, our current federal and state legal rulings reveal a society that emphasizes “freedom” and “rights” by withholding the necessary emotional and psychological channels that would greatly serve their unique needs.  And, the church has done a poor job of engaging and ministering to this group of individuals who have unique needs.

Second, I believe that the answer to the tension of the transgender crisis is Jesus Christ, who is our ontological identity (Eph 5:1 says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children”).  Jesus Christ is the savior for all people, including those who identify as transgender.  Without Christ, none of us will ever solve the tension of perceived identity.  Many of us will identify as heterosexual, successful, American, etc…  And none of those identities will be rooted in Christ, who is our identity.  This is a common problem for all mankind.

Third, this particular situation feels like a missed opportunity for good leadership — instead becoming a battle site for a culture war on both sides.  The LGBTQ movement wants to plant a flag for the sake of gender-identity equality and the family values camp was to raise concern about the failing moral compass of America.  What seems to be getting lost in this deal is that neither the children nor Coleen are being well-served in this matter. Coleen is not the problem here.  The parental reaction and legal response is not the problem here.

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Allow me focus on the twofold issue.  This case is primarily one of leadership failure to protect the best interest for our children and developing minors.  It is secondarily a case of how to move forward in a society where transgender individuals have rights that need to be considered, however, weighed against the good of the whole. After all, not every American identifies as transgender.  That fact must be considered in a new pluralistic society if tolerance is indeed a shared value.

At the heart of the matter is this: Students, some as young as 6-years old, have complained about emotional distress and visual assault in response to seeing a naked adult male changing next to them within the confines of what was supposed to be a protective and non-threatening space, ie: the locker room. If Coleen happened to also be a Catholic Priest changing in a female locker room, this story would be cut and dry and Evergreen College would likely be in an outrage right now. Nevertheless, let’s look at the leadership issue.

How did responsible adults respond to this nightmare of a situation? Writer John Stonestreet explains here:

The swimming coach from the local high school and the mother of one of the team members called the police. When the police arrived Francis informed them that he was a transsexual and that, under Washington State law, he was entitled to use the women’s locker room.

Now, at this point in the story, Francis is correct to state his rights.  He is entitled to use the women’s locker room under the local law.  But the issue of access/ non-access to the locker room was never in dispute.  Parents were not complaining of his rights to use the women’s locker room.  They were complaining of being caught off guard at the sight of a male penis and buttocks being in view of their vulnerable daughters.  This is an issue of indecent exposure.

Here are Washington State laws on indecent exposure:

Indecent exposure is a gross misdemeanor on the first offense if the person exposes himself or herself to a person under the age of fourteen years.

My high school civics teacher, Mr. Sylvester, once summed up the balance between individual rights and community good by saying this: “My individual rights are like a fist.  Community good is like someone’s face.  I am free to extend my fist in the direction of the face.  Once my fist touches the face, however, I have negated my opportunity to appeal to my rights.”

Thus, Francis was arguing for his rights to access.  The parents were complaining about indecent exposure.  These are different issues being merged together in this situation.  How did the leaders of Evergreen College respond? John Stonestreet continues:

The college informed parents that state law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of “gender expression or identity,” tied their hands. The best they could do was to provide screens for those made “uncomfortable” by Francis’ presence.

Really? That was the best they could do?  THE BEST? They described the kids as being uncomfortable?  Yes, that is what usually occurs in an indecent exposure case.  That is why there is a state law for this kind of occurence.  How did leaders not know this?  How did they not anticipate this when they allowed for a 45-year old anatomical man to enter a women’s locker room?  How did they not better serve Coleen and prevent him from being put in this situation?

Does Evergreen College not have a philosophy department where these kinds of ethical situations are discussed? Perhaps, even within a business setting?

Oh, wait…they do.  In fact, here is what the syllabus for their philosophy course ethics and the workplace says:

What’s the right thing to do when as an employee you witness illegal actions?  Whose interests should take priority in pricing and hiring decisions? . . . Employees sometimes face situations such as these that suggest a conflict between being a good employee and being a good person.  We will study several approaches to ethical decision making and, through intensive writing and seminar discussions, use these approaches to clarify issues faced at work.

Okay, I’m just spit-balling here, but here are a few leadership solutions to this horrendous situation that don’t marginalize the children and make them feel like the offenders in this situation by placing them behind the prison of a screen AND that cares for Coleen’s unique situation:

  1. If you are going to host minors in your public coeducational university locker rooms, why not designate a locker room for minors?  This is, in fact, common place at most YMCAs, fitness clubs, tennis clubs, and other athletic venues.  There is one locker room for adults and another for those 18 and younger.  And…there is distinction made between male and female.  Thus, that makes for 4 locker room options. Problem solved.
  2. On that note, why not create family style locker rooms that allow for changing of clothes in this sensitive and impressionable time of life?
  3. If you are a college at the center of the LGBTQ movement and are welcoming of transgender students (as Evergreen College is), why not plan ahead and create a transgender locker room option?  This has worked well in places like Thailand where the “ladyboys” phenomenon is popular and sex change operations are affordable.  Problem solved.
  4. Why not designate certain hours as being “kid friendly” hours and ask that transgender students refrain from using the locker room during those hours as a courtesy to developing minds of our children and so that these students don’t get blindsided by the awkward position of being sued for indecent exposure?  I mean, take 2 hours of the possible 16 hours that a gym is open and make it family friendly.  It’s a win-win.

Again, any of these options would have been better than the decision made by the current leadership of Evergreen College.  Coleen would not have to be forced into the middle of a controversy, protecting his heart in all this.  And the children would have been protected from being visual assaulted by Coleen, protecting their innocence in all this.

It is a shame because good leadership decisions would have averted this impending disaster both for Coleen and for the children who were harmed – and good leadership would have kept this issue from becoming a battle in a ever exploding culture war.

About Doug Hankins

Although not a Christian in his youth, Doug came to believe in Jesus during his teenage years. When not playing sports or pastoring Doug is probably spending time with his wife, reading a good book, or drinking some hot tea. Doug's first book Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words is available wherever books are sold. You can follow Doug on twitter.
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