The transgender rights debate exploding in states like North Carolina is hitting closer to home this spring after House Republicans introduced a bill restricting restroom use and parents of a transgender kindergartner filed a discrimination complaint against a St. Paul charter school.
“It’s certainly a very intense conversation that’s taking place in Minnesota right now,” said Jill Gaulding, co-founder of nonprofit law firm Gender Justice, which represents David and Hannah Edwards of St. Paul in their complaint against Nova Classical Academy.
Earlier this month, Gov. Mark Dayton canceled any state travel to North Carolina because of a new law there that limits restroom use to a person’s biological sex — rather than their gender identity. On Tuesday, the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee held an informational hearing at the Capitol on a similar bill. That bill faces long odds, given Dayton’s opposition and that committee deadlines for this session have already passed.
In testimony at the Tuesday hearing, supporters pressed the bill’s safety and security measures while opponents challenged the limits on equality and legality grounds. Riah Roe, a transgender civil rights commissioner and community organizer based in Minneapolis, testified that when she was in college, a security guard refused her access to the women’s restroom at a restaurant “because they were cracking down on that sort of thing.”
“My human right to access public accommodation had been suspended, taken into the hands of a person who may very likely wish that my kind of human didn’t exist,” Roe said.
Attorney Melissa Coleman testified in favor of the bill at the hearing, saying she wanted to ensure “Minnesota employees, and particularly women, have private and safe workplace restrooms.”
The Minnesota Family Council also favors the bill, arguing that sexual predators could gain entry to restrooms if laws requiring access for transgender people are put forward.
The bill and the Edwardses’ experience at Nova Classical Academy prove there’s a long way to go to make changes, said Gaulding. But it’s also recognition of how far activists have come, she said.
David Edwards testified that if this bill becomes law, his child would be put in danger. He said he’d heard the claims of sexual exploitation but didn’t buy them.
“The difference between their concern and mine is the danger my daughter is facing is actually real,” he said.
The Edwardses filed a complaint with the St. Paul Human Rights Department on March 24, claiming their child was bullied at Nova after starting kindergarten as a boy and switching that identification to a girl midway through the year. In January, the Minnesota Family Council held a meeting at the school to respond to concerns about the Edwardses’ child, attended by people for and against a policy to support gender-nonconforming students.
The complaint said the Edwardses moved their child to another school after Nova canceled plans to support the child’s transition, including communication to families. It cites a “failure to protect students from gender-based bullying and hostility.”
Nova Executive Director Eric Williams said Tuesday that the school’s board is working on adopting a gender inclusion policy to reflect “an environment that’s safe for all children to learn in.”
Since her child switched to a St. Paul public school, Hannah Edwards said, she has more peace of mind. She commends St. Paul Public Schools’ gender inclusion policy.
“I don’t worry about her every day when I go drop her off at school,” she said.
The events of the past year have been stressful, but she and her husband, David, said organizations and the community have backed the family.
Nova Classical Academy has 20 days to respond to the discrimination complaint.
“Our end goal is making sure that not only this charter school where our child used to be but that all Minnesota schools are safe spaces for any gender-nonconforming, gender-variant, transgender child on day one,” Hannah Edwards said. “Nobody should have to go through everything that our family went through.”