A recently-elected Delta County School Board member has stirred controversy with her comments on transgender students using school facilities that match their gender identity, rather than their biological gender.
At a meeting in late October, Katherine Svenson presented board members with an article discussing how California and Massachusetts had passed laws specifically granting transgender students that right.
“And I said, I just want everybody to know what's going on in the rest of the country,” Svenson says, “and I for one say it won't happen here without a plumbing change.”
But here's the thing - state law in Colorado says it can happen here.
In a recent and highly-publicized case from Fountain, Colorado, the state's Division of Civil Rights ruled that a 6-year-old transgender girl named Coy Mathis was discriminated against when she was refused access to the girl's restroom.
Coy Mathis is biologically a boy, but according to her parents had strongly identified as a girl since about the age of 4.
Michael Silverman is the Executive Director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund. His firm represented Mathis in a discrimination complaint lodged by her parents against the Fountain-Fort Carson School District.
“What the Colorado Division of Civil Rights said was that within the state of Colorado, you cannot deny a transgender child the right to use the bathroom that matches who they truly are,” he says.
But Svenson says she wasn’t talking about transgender students' having access to bathrooms, and that a reporter she first spoke with misunderstood her comments.
“What she left out was that I was referring to the locker room.”
Still, Colorado's anti-discrimination rules state that transgender people have to be allowed access to any facilities that are “consistent with their gender identity.” That includes restrooms and locker rooms in schools.
I asked Svenson whether she was familiar with that law.
“No,” she says. “I thought it was in California and Massachusetts. I did not know it was in Colorado.”
The Delta County School District and the School Board have distanced themselves from Svenson's comments, saying they're simply her own opinion and don't reflect the school's policies.
“We are following state and federal law with our policy,” says Delta County School Board Vice President Tammy Smith, “and that says that we will not discriminate.”
But for her part, Svenson says she'd like to see that policy changed.
“The new policy would state that as long as you are biologically of one sex, you use those facilities,” she says.
“The transgender boys are still biologically boys. And since transgender is something they have in their mind, they can change,” says Svenson. “They can change in an instant back to biological boys.”
“It’s not something that you can change, as it’s not a decision,” says Krista Whipple, president of the Gender Identity Center of Colorado.
“We’re born with it just like any other physical or mental attribute.”
Whipple says the perception of gender identity as something that can change back and forth poses challenges for students in particular.
“They get a lot pressure from that, they feel very discouraged, they experience depression, because people don’t understand them.”
“As it stands, even if Svenson does suggest the school board adopt new policies for transgender students, the Mathis ruling and state law would supersede those changes.
“That's not limited to Coy Mathis, that's not limited to the Fountain-Fort Carson School District,” says Silverman. “That's Colorado law and it applies across the state.”
“Then I may have to go a different route,” says Svenson. “I certainly can't make a policy against the policy can I?”
Update: In a statement, a spokesperson for the Colorado Division of Civil Rights said "these comments are certainly troubling to Division Director Steven Chavez and he hopes it does not represent the sentiments of the full school board."