March 30, 2016

By Wesley Roberts

I love Tennessee. I was born here and raised here. I attended Tennessee public schools from kindergarten through college.

I have taught our state’s wonderful children for 35 years and am currently at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School in Nashville. Our school is the top-performing high school in the state, and we are very proud of that.

I spend my days in the classroom with young people who are 13 to 18 years old. My most important job is to keep them safe. I take that job very seriously, which is why I’m strongly opposed to a bill now before Tennessee’s state legislature — SB 2387 and HB2414 — which threatens to create big problems for local school districts, puts the state at odds with federal policies and does nothing to increase safety in our public schools.

This bill is a solution in search of a problem. It discriminates against transgender students, regardless of the fact that many medical conditions may result in transgender status, by prohibiting them from using the restrooms or locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity. As I have talked with students about this bill, it’s clear that it is not something they’re worried about, so why are our lawmakers claiming to act on their behalf?

My students are most concerned about inclusion — they just want to blend in. When it comes to very personal matters — such as using the bathroom — most students are not trying to make a political or moral statement by choosing one restroom over the other. And local schools have been doing an excellent job of accommodating students for many years.

As teachers and professionals, we have successfully made decisions on a case-by-case basis by carefully considering parent rights, student needs and impact on the overall school environment.

This law would remove the ability of local school districts and teachers to determine the most appropriate accommodations for individual students. It would replace that flexibility with a new state mandate, one that does nothing to help students and only marginalizes transgender students who are already disadvantaged because of society’s lack of understanding.

In addition, passing this harmful measure could put local schools at odds with federal rules and regulations, risk losing millions of dollars of federal funding and open the door to costly federal lawsuits that would divert precious resources away from educating our children.

Every student should have a fair chance to succeed in school, but many transgender students struggle because they face hostility, discrimination and bullying. This proposal would make that even worse.

As I imagine the implementation of this bill, I think of having to approach a student who has always identified as male. It would be my responsibility to demand to see his birth certificate before allowing him to use the restroom. Rather than blending in, as most students wish to do, he’d be forced to provide proof of his sex, humiliated in front of his peers and ultimately forced to use the girls' restroom despite living life every day as a boy. This is humiliating and would put students at risk of harassment, assault and more. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect transgender students to use a restroom that is inconsistent with their identity, just as it would be for anyone else.

The problems that are generated by the passage of this bill are far greater than any imagined scenarios. In Tennessee, we all want what is best for our children and young people throughout this state. As a teacher who loves his students, I hope all Tennesseans will urge the legislature to reject this discriminatory bill.

Wesley Roberts teaches at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School in Nashville.

This op-ed appeared in The Tennessean on March 30, 2016.