Grandpa’s Agenda

The Human Rights Commission in Maine has been getting it right lately when it comes to protecting trans people in that state. Back in May they found that a trans woman banned from using the restroom in a Denny’s had indeed been discriminated against. Now they’ve backed a little girl who was forced out of the girls bathroom by transphobic attacks.

You’d think this would just be a matter of course for a state department charged with protecting human rights. Unfortunately, Maine is actually ahead of the curve in many ways and what ought to be commonplace is remarkable instead. I’ll come back to that idea after the cut — first, check out what actually caused the incident at this girl’s school:

The discrimination in question first occurred in October 2007 when the child was in the fifth grade at Asa Adams School. Until then, she was allowed to use the girls’ bathroom, although she was biologically male. But that fall, the transgender child was followed into the girls room by a male student who had “previously started to harass her by stalking her and calling her ‘faggot,’” according to the Maine Human Rights Commission investigator’s report.

After the second such episode, the boy was suspended and removed from the transgender child’s class. At that point, school officials told the transgender child that she had to use a single-stall faculty bathroom at the other end of the school, and that was when her parents decided to take the matter to the Maine Human Rights Commission.

Paul Melanson, grandfather of the boy accused of harassing the transgender student, also filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, saying that not allowing his grandson to use the girls bathroom or the faculty bathroom as the other child did was a violation of his grandson’s right to public accommodation under the Maine Human Rights Act. Melanson had given his grandson permission to use the girls bathroom as long as the transgender student was doing so, according to the report.

Wow. So, this school had actually provided pretty well for this trans student’s bathroom needs, but then Paul Melanson decided to use his grandson as a pawn to fight against what’s wrong. And by “fight against what’s wrong” what we really mean here is “stalk a little girl into the bathroom yelling ‘faggot’ at her.” Good job, Grandpa Melanson. One asshole bigot who won’t mind his own business really CAN make a difference!

The school suspended his grandson. Then, in an equivocating somersault of victim-blaming, they also told the girl being harassed that she had to use the faculty bathroom at the other end of the school. Presumably for her own safety, right? That’s exactly the rationale used to isolate and stigmatize other people who endangered by bigots and abusers. It’s what some prisons claim as the reason they throw trans women in solitary confinement, even when they’re required by law to use “the hole” only as punishment.

Grandpa Melanson is now running around town trying to stir up mothers against this tween trans girl, and presumably any other trans kids who dare to be growing up in Maine. Seriously: what the hell is wrong with some people? It only takes one jerk to complain about a trans person, or a “guy in a turban who looks like a terrorist” on the airplane, or anyone else “suspicious,” before some lily-livered authorities will flip out and abandon any pretense they have of fair treatment. (Note by the way: I don’t recommend reading the comments on the Bangor Daily News’ website, unless you want to see exactly how many jerks are out there just waiting for an opportunity to vent their colonial rage at DIFFERENT people being treated fairly.)

I’m glad to see that the Maine Human Rights Commission is taking a stand and saying that trans people have the right to use a bathroom that fits with and affirms our gender identity. Even the school in question was down with that… until the first sign of trouble. Far more often, trans people are asked to compromise and accommodate the fears and prejudices of bigots and other people who are ignorant or afraid of us. Solutions and halfway measures are found that basically resolve conflicts by making trans people go away somewhere that we won’t be seen.

“Oh, come on,” you might be thinking, “is it really that big of a deal to go to a single-stall unisex bathroom somewhere else in your school, or across the street from your workplace, in another part of campus?” Sometimes that compromise is the only deal that trans people can strike, and there’s no choice but to live with it. But how do you think that kind of compromise makes a little kid feel? When a school won’t stand up for her against a bully, when they say “you know, we said you could use the bathroom just like all of your classmates, but now that we think about it, some students don’t like how you’re different, and it’s causing us too much trouble. So go to the other end of the school and use that isolated bathroom in the faculty lounge.”

Is that really necessary? No. Public institutions like schools should stand up against bigots, for the rights of marginalized and isolated students. I don’t care if there’s only one trans student in the whole district; that makes it all the more important. Schools are failing all over the place at the task of protecting queer and gender non-conforming kids from harassment and discrimination, and kids are getting killed as a result. Sometimes this is a very murky and difficult task to place on a school administration — how do you stop bullying? How do you intervene without making it worse? Other times, as with the case up in Maine, all they had to do was put their foot down and stand up for this girl’s right to go to school without stigma, just like any other kid.

All too often, the compromise of “go hide in a bathroom where nobody will encounter you” has been promoted even by trans people. Transgender awareness trainings for workplaces and organizations, many of them given by trans people who train as a profession, hold out that option as a compromise solution to help “uncomfortable” employees deal with having to work with a trans person. Of course, companies and other organizations are happy to seize on any kind of compromise that will help them avoid the more difficult work of dealing with, educating, standing up against employees who don’t want to be in a stall next a trans person.

I have a friend who faced a similar problem in college — she just wanted to be able to go to the bathroom like anyone else. Her school called Jennifer Boylan, catapulted to the status of trans rights expert because she wrote an autobiography about her transition. Boylan told them to have my friend go to a unisex bathroom (across campus) rather than using the same facilities as everyone else, and to make sure she was carrying a letter from her physician about her transition at all times. (What?! This is an old recommendation from some local trans groups to try and protect trans people in the case of a bigoted state trooper pulling you over, but nobody does it anymore.) I have been slightly irritated with her ever since.

You know what? Single-stall lockable restrooms are a great idea for everyone. There’s no question about that. They’re great as unisex changing stations, they may be a more comfortable and affirming option for genderqueer people who don’t want to go in either bathroom, they often double as accessible restrooms for people with mobility impairments. They should be more common and widespread. But nobody should be FORCED to use them, especially if it means hiking much further away from a classroom or workstation than anyone else. You know who should have to use single-stall lockable restrooms, when it comes down to it? People whose ATTITUDES make them uncomfortable with trans people. Attitudes can change. Holding onto them, not wanting to learn or understand, is an individual’s choice. And sure, it can take a while. Gentle education is often a great idea. Until you feel okay sharing a bathroom with other people, how about you use the faculty lounge at the other end of the school?

If you want to educate your organization or company or school about this stuff, I recommend you get a copy of Toilet Training, a documentary put out by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project that covers the bases on this issue. (Disclosure: I work with SRLP.) Another really good resource is Transitioning our shelters: A guide to making homeless shelters safe for transgender people, put out by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.

Here are some highlight talking points:

  • Trans people are not creepy sexual predators. We just want to go to the bathroom in peace, and safe bathrooms can be hard to find.
  • Many people are worried about being safe in bathrooms, especially the safety of women and children. Unfortunately, a gendered sign on the door (of a stick figure in a skirt, for instance) won’t actually help protect anyone from real threats. Single-stall lockable bathrooms are safer for people who feel like they’re in danger, too.
  • It’s often not as hard as schools and institutions think to create bathrooms or other facilities that are safe for trans people. Sometimes it’s as simple as building a wall or putting locks on doors. Sometimes it’s a simple as actually training staff, employees, students about trans issues, which many schools have started to do.
  • If another employee, client, or student is afraid of or triggered by the presence of a trans person, that’s not the trans person’s fault. It may still be a problem that needs to be explained, taught about, or dealt with by providing the upset person another place to go.
  • If someone is acting inappropriately or threateningly in a bathroom, that’s a problematic behavior that needs to be dealt with. Trans people are not inherently a problem just because of the way we dress or look. It’s up to restaurant managers, school staff, supervisors, whoever is representing an institution, to figure out if there’s actually been problem behavior, or if someone’s complaining about what they perceive to be a “problem person.”

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26 comments for “Grandpa’s Agenda

  1. Ry
    July 2, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    There’s also a restroom access resource guide available from the Transgender Law Center:

  2. July 2, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    I can’t dig up the link, but Amanda at Ballastexistenz made the point about bullying: why is it that we send the bullied kids to therapy, and make them accommodate the bullying? Why isn’t it the *bullies* getting sent off to the school counselor, made to change their routes, etc.? How fucking backwards do we have it?

  3. July 2, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    I can relate to the issues presented in the post in a personal way. At my former place of employ – a self-proclaimed progressive school in upstate NY – there was a transgendered student (female to male, for clarification). A decision was made for him to use the faculty bathroom, instead of the boys’ bathroom. Even though he was to use the faculty bathroom versus the boys’ bathroom, many of the boys were upset. Honestly, I believe the boys’ feelings, for the most part, were the result of ignorance and fear, and not prejudice. However, my former place of employ, operating on this “we’re all equal” platform, did nothing to educate the faculty and staff, let alone the student body, re: transgender issues. There was an assumption that since, “we’re a community, we’re a family”, that was that. However, the approach my former place of employ couldn’t have been more wrong, and ignorant.

    Theoretically, perhaps, it should have been enough to say, “this is so and so, who is transgendered, and this is what will happen, and no further discussion.” However, I find that the most liberal, left-of-center organizations – and my former place of employ is one of them – are often the most ignorant, mis-informed and backwards places to be.

    So, while there are schools stepping up and educating re: transgender issues, I wonder what sort of “educating” are they doing?

  4. July 2, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Found it. Amanda in “Students vote boy out of class

    And I remember as well that when I was bullied so mercilessly — at an age where I understood far better what was happening — that I was afraid to go to school and lashed out defensively at nearly anyone who tried to interact with me at all, I was the one who got counseling, and I was the one who was talked about by teachers as if there was something wrong with me. And I was the one who had to repeat a grade and change schools. The bullies were left to go on doing their thing, because it was only natural to be nasty and cruel, but wholly unnatural to be terrified of people who acted in this manner.

    Why is it that the person to do the accommodating is the one hurt by it, and the thing to be accommodated is the perpetration of hurt? Doesn’t that assume that it is perpetration of hurt that should be allowed to exist without challenge?

  5. prairielily
    July 2, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Holly, for the most part I agree with you. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure why ANY washrooms are gender-segregated. I don’t really care what the person next to me is using to pee, and you’re correct that a stick figure on the door is no guarantee of safety. A man could sneak in to kill me, and a woman (trans or cis) could walk in and do so. Either way, the likelihood of that happening is so slim that the possibility just sounds outlandish to me.

    But in this case, this little girl IS in danger. She’s being stalked and bullied. Do any of us really think that the harasser is going to stick to yelling faggot at her? His asshole grandfather is probably going to tell him to beat her up very soon, if he hasn’t done it already. I don’t LIKE the idea at all, mind you. It’s farther away, and it singles her out. I just think that she is actually in danger.

    Frankly, I would prefer to send the bully to a different school. He’s clearly not comfortable around his peers and would be happier in a different learning environment. If it’s farther away from his home, I’m sure his grandfather would be happy to drive him there. And honestly, he’s probably bullying other students as well.

    The best solution would be if he learns to stop being an asshole like his grandfather at a young age, but I’m not holding my breath.

  6. Maureen
    July 2, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    I kind of wish this had taken place:

    SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION PERSON: Hi, we’ve learned that your grandson James has been following Tina into the girls’ restroom.
    GRANDPA: Yep, I told him that he could do that so long as that freak boy was doing it.
    ADMIN: It’s great that you’re being so understanding about James’s gender, but we do require a doctor’s note in order to let James use the girls’ room. I think Dr. Broadbent over in Appleton treats a lot of transgender children…
    GRANDPA: What?
    ADMIN: Well, why else would James want to use the girls’ room?
    GRANDPA: My grandson is not a fag!
    ADMIN: We don’t use that kind of language here, sir.
    GRANDPA: He’s not a freak–
    ADMIN: Yeah, we don’t use that kind of language either.
    GRANDPA: He doesn’t want to be a girl, okay?
    ADMIN: So why is he using the girls’ room?
    GRANDPA: Why’s that boy who dresses in girls’ clothes using the girls’ room?
    ADMIN: She wants to have a vagina instead of a penis.
    GRANDPA: (silence)
    ADMIN: So, we’re sending James to our alternative program for a week, then, and hopefully he’ll stop abusing the other children. Any questions?

  7. Butch Fatale
    July 2, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Maureen – I get where you’re coming from, but it’s never appropriate to discuss other people’s genitals without their consent. The fact that a child is known to be transgender does not constitute permission to discuss her genitalia or body.

    Furthermore, the fact that she’s transgender doesn’t mean that’s what she wants. Or she may want that *as well* as a number of other things. Transgender status does not reduce down to, necessarily focus on, or always include focus on genitals.

    Seriously, that’s a really gross thing to say. I know a lot of people do it, but it’s still really creepy.

  8. Maureen
    July 2, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    My bad. I apologize.

  9. July 2, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Let me get this straight. A cis boy walks into a girls’ bathroom to harass a trans girl. And it’s the trans girl who has to change where she goes to the bathroom. If that girl was cis, this boy would be identified as the predator that he is. He’d be suspended, if not expelled, and the girl would use the same bathroom as always. God, the world is fucking nuts. Seriously, my brain is hurting and I’m getting angry with all this.

  10. July 2, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    prarielily, I agree with you. I would understand completely if her parents had wanted to pull her out of the school, or demand that her harasser be sent elsewhere. With his grandfather on the loose trying to cause trouble for her, she was certainly more at risk than a lot of bullied kids. I’m using the past tense because she’s probably in 7th grade by now, and possibly at a completely different school already.

    Still, it’s not like the school’s action — making her use a different restroom — was doing anything at all to protect her. It’s not like people would stop harassing her just because the school forced her to accede to one of their demands, related to bathrooms. Rage has erupted from parents, misunderstanding and bullying from kids, over trans & gender non-conforming kids regardless of what bathrooms they use. The risk is always there unless you just keep running (and hope nobody finds out about your daughter’s original gender assignment) or somehow force her to be someone she’s not. So I also don’t blame her parents, in fact I applaud them, for going to the Maine HRC and taking a stand.

  11. William
    July 2, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Maybe its just my experience with schools and my reflexive distrust of anyone with authority, but this story seems to make perfect sense to me. I’d find it hard to believe that any school official would want to be accommodating to a trans-person (god knows getting disability accommodations is like pulling teeth) for any reason other than fear of getting sued. All the boy and his Grandfather did was give the school an excuse to make the offending object* go away. Cast the trans-kid off to the faculty bathroom, tell them its for their own safety (and how thankful they should be that the school is progressive and understanding), give the boy a little slap on the wrist with a nudge and a wink, and go back to business as usual.

  12. Angela
    July 2, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    ThickRedGlasses is very right.

  13. July 2, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    Aside from the fail all over this story, I do like that the paper is using appropriate pronouns.

  14. woland
    July 2, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    Ugh. Aside from all the other massive fail in this situation, I “love” the fact that so much of the focus in the article comments is on the supposed threat posed to the other girls using the bathroom, when there’s ZERO evidence that a single girl was bothered in the slightest that their trans female classmate used the girls’ room.

    To be clear, even if girls did claim to be bothered, that would be no reason to deny a trans girl bathroom access. But. A lot of the article commenst suggest that some bigot using his grandson to stalk and harass a trans girl supposedly protects the cis girls, and the girls in question get no voice at all. For all we know, they’re totally trans-affirming and down with the whole thing and have nothing but contempt for the people committing bigotry allegedly for their benefit. But hey, they’ children, and female at that, so who the hell cares what they think?

  15. July 3, 2009 at 1:12 am

    Just watch and wait for the new argument against allowing trans people to use the correct bathrooms:

    “If we let trans women use the women’s bathroom, then bigoted men will follow them in to attack them–making cis women less safe!”

    I mean, seriously, everyone’s so busy being up in arms about a trans girl in the girl’s room–oh my god it’s like a boy in the girl’s bathroom!–that they can’t spare a damn minute to be up in arms about the actual boy who followed her in there to attack her? And the adult telling the child to do so? The little girl is the problem, and not the grown man telling his grandson to invade the girl’s bathroom to harass someone? And have we still failed to notice that the stick figure on the door is not a magic barrier to men and boys?

  16. prairielily
    July 3, 2009 at 7:39 am


    We seem to be in general agreement. I also agree that it’s laudable that her parents are taking a stand, and I support them in that.

    The only reason why I thought the faculty washroom might be safer for her is because I assumed it was connected to the main office, or right outside it. It’s harder for a bully to harass this little girl if they have to walk past all the staff in the main office to do so. (Note that this assumption only works if the staff is actually interested in protecting her.)

    I know this is my privilege showing, but I saw this as a situation where a fifth grade girl would use the other washroom for the rest of the year, and then they would all go to middle school. In my mind, it was only temporary because the two of them wouldn’t be at the same school forever, and then this little girl could go back to using the same washroom as the other girls. I was thinking very specifically of this little girl’s situation at that time, and I wasn’t really applying it to anything else.

    Why did I think that when washroom issues are such a big deal to trans people? I concluded that no one else cared which washroom she used, especially the girls. If they did, someone’s mother would be in there with grandpa equally up in arms. There would have been incidents where the transgendered girl was bullied by groups of cisexual girls for using the “wrong” bathroom. I don’t think that happened, because the school would have already moved her to the faculty washroom for her “safety,” you know?

    But yeah, as a WOC, I should have remembered that when you give these people an inch, they take a mile.

  17. Little Sara
    July 3, 2009 at 9:22 am

    I’m glad the argument never actually even came up at my place of work. And it’s not like HR are not knowing of my history. With no document change they knew the day I was hired. I explained my situation as best I could, to clear things up (not let false assumptions do my piece instead of me), and have never had a problem using the women’s room.

    No one’s been raped, or harassed or whatever else because of my presence (and I don’t mean to accuse the girl, I’m just saying, a trans girl using the girl’s room brings no issue unless someone makes it one – in this case the grandpa and son).

    Frankly, given the way my case was treated when I attempted to go to college (which didn’t work out in the end, too little school loans to even survive), what with being forced to use my legal name and having to deal with bathroom and locker room (PE is mandatory in college here, just not all semesters) on my own, with no help at all… I thought a workplace would be worst.

  18. July 3, 2009 at 9:34 am


    (Note that this assumption only works if the staff is actually interested in protecting her.)

    And honestly, call it cynical, but you’ve just brought up my primary fear about having this girl go through the faculty lounge or whatever to get to an isolated washroom away from the other kids. You combine that with the basic vulnerability of her being trans–and therefore, on some level, lacking credibility as a narrator to most people–and what you’ve got is an already-bullied little girl walking through an isolated area with only adults, all of whom know that a: she’s isolated and b: she has reason to keep her mouth shut, plus c: she won’t be believed about a lot of things. And if you’re the sort of adult who thinks this kid is a pervert and maybe even “asking for it”…

    It’s a situation ripe for abuse. I hate to be the one pointing it out. It’s not that I don’t think well enough of teachers in general, it’s just that it’s a situation with no failsafes. And there were plenty of teachers who never wanted to protect me, even when I was a kid subjected to violence; it’s not a far extrapolation to account for the idea that there are teachers who don’t just look the other way when a gender-nonconforming kid is harmed, but maybe even agree with that grandpa that it should happen. It may be fine at this school in particular or a thousand others, but as a policy it’s a recipe for trouble eventually.

  19. July 3, 2009 at 9:44 am

    The thing here is that for trans children, most of the time, the adults aren’t protectors, safety. The adults are yet more predators — and much bigger, more authoritative, powerful ones. The adults are yet more people out to hurt you.

  20. Little Sara
    July 3, 2009 at 9:59 am

    I’m almost glad I was in my fog of confusion, not knowing, not caring, at school age. All that mattered was finishing the grade, getting it over with. Since I brushed the issue under the rug in my mind, I didn’t have to worry about the vast stupidity of adults while a child, well at least not to the extent I would have had I been openly trans. My parents knew I was depressed, but not why, and were too busy to investigate. The initial work and support to find out about trans was done solo, then friends, and finally my mom jumped in to help, when I convinced her it would be permanent, and irreversible (in a way she couldn’t ignore).

    Pain makes us grow (we learn from it, become better, etc), but too much pain breaks us. I wish for that little girl to not have as much pain growing up as me and others have had, because of their difference.

  21. voz
    July 3, 2009 at 10:06 am

    That school is just a few miles down the road from my place. And yes, the neighbors are talking about it, and with far far more clue and sensitivity than I have seen on many feminist blogs

    That said, Holly, if you want a local perspective, let me know. This is most definitely not the place for it.

  22. Sam
    July 3, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    OMG I think I actually met Paul Melanson a long long time ago–I think he knows my family. This has sickened me, that poor little girl. People like Paul Melanson are just fostering and propagating hate onto an entire new generation.

  23. Nicole
    July 6, 2009 at 12:09 am

    That poor little girl – :( I’m not trans but I was bullied for years and years in school, and I remember being scared to walk out of sight of adults because of what the other kids would say or do. Its no way to grow up, and I hope that things have gotten better for her since this incident. I do know that the scars from being bullied and teased daily for years don’t go away – its so STUPID that the grandfather was encouraging the boy in the story to do that. I wonder how many other parents in the area are/would be doing the same thing. The comments on the BDN site make me ashamed to live in Maine. This sort of prejudice isn’t limited to a certain generation or location around the state, but seems to be common through out.

  24. denelian
    July 6, 2009 at 12:29 am

    for the love of God –
    a 5th grade trangendered girl is *not* any sort of “threat” to other girls (except inasfar as she might prompt questioning of social norms)

    people are asking why it is always the victim who has to change something to be safe. and i wonder too – whenever i hear a story like this, i get very angry at it. it doesn’t matter why someone is being ullied or hurt – it is always the victims job to change.

    it’s bullshit. that little girl has *every* right to use the bathroom with her peers (and probably many of them are her firends!). making her go to a different bathroom just highlights that adults (some of them) don’t think her presentation is valid – it’s like admin in the school are telling everyone “she isn’t really a girl” – and that is horrifying. and shaming. and WRONG.

  25. July 9, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    We wanted to do a video/commercial with instead of the ‘wrong’ gender entering a restroom after a child but instead a creepy looking priest-dressed guy or scary knife-wielding soccer mom… But we couldn’t find anyone willing to be the creepy priest dude.

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