Published April 09, 2010
The little girls' room won't be just for little girls anymore, if the Maine Human Rights Commission has its way.
The commission is taking heat over a controversial proposal to ban schools from enforcing gender divisions in sports teams, school organizations, bathrooms and locker rooms. It says forcing a student into a particular room or group because of his or her biological gender amounts to discrimination.
The issue came to light last year when the commission ruled that, under the Maine Human Rights Act, a school had discriminated against a 12-year-old transgender boy by denying him access to the girls' bathroom.
Now the commission aims to issue guidelines on how schools should deal with similar situations in the future. It would make Maine the first state to implement such guidelines for schools as young as preschool and nursery -- and even some private schools.
But not everyone in the state is on board with the current proposal.
Some school districts and organizations have criticized the commission for making its initial ruling without getting enough input from conservative groups, and then for coming up with proposed guidelines in what some described as closed-door sessions.
"The conservative side was never brought in on the discussion in the first place, if you look at who gave testimony, written testimony, etc., in the beginning,” Rev. Bob Celeste of Harrison told FoxNews.com. “When you only bring one side in, you’re not looking for an honest debate. You’re looking for an agenda.”
Once it came time to vote on the guidelines, the commission again came under fire for not doing enough to inform Mainers of the vote, and for not allowing the public to speak at the hearing where it was held.
“We found out about this hearing by accident. We were never informed of it,” said Celeste, who was the first person to speak out at the March hearing.
“When I went to the hearing I expected to ask, ‘Why are they doing this?’ And they said that they weren’t going to have public hearings,” he said. “I said ‘Mr. Chairman, it’s getting late, when are we going to be able to ask questions?’ and he said, ‘You can’t.’”
Celeste says he then walked out of the meeting, but other outraged citizens got very vocal after his departure and apparently persuaded the commission to postpone the vote.
Now those critics are looking to get their voices heard again at a public hearing on the issue next month.
"When we separate biology it gets very confusing for everyone," Mike Heath, president of the American Family Association of New England, told FoxNews.com. "Now we're talking about bathrooms where ladies will entertain the possibility of men being in the restroom with them, and every woman I've talked to has indicated that they wouldn't be comfortable with that."
With the law affecting schools ranging from nursery level to post-doctorate studies, Heath says he's concerned with the ramifications of opening up "this can of worms," especially when it comes to younger students.
“I get a little more upset with the topic when it touches on young children and what they’re going to have to think about and process,” he said.
Critics seem especially concerned about the mixing of genders in bathrooms and locker rooms. The commission's proposal reads: "Transgender students must be allowed access to the bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity or expression or, if they prefer, to existing single-stall bathrooms."
"There's not a whole lot of places a girl can expect privacy, but the bathroom should be one of them," said Celeste. "And there's not a whole lot of places a boy expects privacy, but the bathroom should be one of them. Married couples close the door when they go to the bathroom.”
Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services, says the guidelines set out in the commission's draft brochure pose some serious safety issues as well.
"If my kid walks into a girls' bathroom and sees a man in there, the child is going to instinctively feel that something’s wrong. If you create an entirely new climate where anything goes, you’re going to create increased confusion, and those with ill intentions could take advantage of that confusion and decreased ability to make a distinction," Trump told FoxNews.com.
"The reality is, every day we’re seeing more and more cases of exploitation of children and others, and this would be creating an environment where the risk is increased for that exploitation."
Because the commission suggests that people won't be obligated to supply medical documentation that proves they are transgender, Trump says the policy also paves the way for increased sexual activity on school grounds – both consensual and non-consensual.
"Educators at the middle school level struggle every day in trying to keep student hormonal issues under control so that the focus can be on education," he said. "We certainly don’t need to create an environment to accelerate and exacerbate the issue and further the experimentation, the inappropriate comments, inappropriate touching, groping, grabbing, sexual assaults and in some cases, rapes in schools."
Karen Kemble, the Director of Equal Opportunity for the University of Maine, says the university has not taken a position for or against the proposed guidelines, but she shared concerns over some of them, including schools' inability to ask for "proof" of sexual orientation.
"This would leave the institution without any way to determine the bona fide nature of the gender identity or expression," Kemble said in a letter to the commission.
"It is routine practice to seek documentation of non-obvious disabilities in the event of an accommodation request. Even in the case of religious accommodations, an employer may sometimes seek additional information regarding either the religious nature of the request or the sincerity of a particular belief," she added.
As an NCAA institution, Kemble says the University of Maine system could also face many hurdles when it comes to incorporating the guidelines into its athletic program.
"Some of the issues that we face are that the NCAA has rules that if we, for example, allowed a transgender student to participate in gender-segregated sport, then that may raise concerns about fairness and also may spark action by the NCAA, she said.
"We certainly want to have a welcoming environment and are doing everything we can to support the right to gender identity and gender expression," she added.
John Gause, counsel for the Maine Human Rights Commission, told FoxNews.com that the commission is still in the process of developing guidelines on how the Maine Human Rights Act "applies in the context of sexual orientation in schools and colleges."
"A date and location for the public comment session will be finalized in the near future," he wrote in an e-mail.
The commission said more information on the public hearing will be posted on its Web site once those details are finalized.
Neither Gause nor the commission's executive director, Pat Ryan, returned follow-up e-mails and phone calls seeking a response to concerns raised over the guidelines.