Transgender Student Rights in Illinois

What transgender students and their caregivers should know

By Amy White | Last updated on August 10, 2022

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In 2019, a Centers for Disease Control study found that nearly 2% of high school students in America identify as transgender, which means many high schools and school districts throughout the nation have some work to do. Schools and education lawyer Jennifer Smith of Franczek in Chicago says every transgender student has the basic right to feel safe and accepted at school. “That starts with conversations among school staff and educators about how you identify the student, in terms of student records, as well as in class or around the building: What name and pronoun is to be used, as well as how that communication and implementation will be shared with other students.”

Gender Identity and Private Spaces in School

There should be anti-bullying language, she notes, and facility access in regard to locker rooms and bathrooms. “Dress codes also might need to be reviewed,” she says, “as well as some of the more rare occurrences, like how overnight trips will be treated.” Well-meaning staff might be eager to create a space particularly for transgender students, Smith says, but that’s at odds with true access. “The No. 1 goal would be that students have full access to spaces other students have access to,” she says. “On a case-by-case basis, if a transgender student does request separate space for privacy, either in the restroom or the nurse’s office, for example, that’s one thing, but the assumption should be that we make all of our spaces available.” After a Kenosha Unified School District transgender student filed a discrimination lawsuit in 2016 for his school’s refusal to use his name and male pronouns or allow him access to the boys restroom, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that transgender students are protected from discrimination. That decision rippled into Illinois, says Smith, who thinks the state is ahead of the game when it comes to transgender student rights. “Ever since that case, and in combination with some local laws, it’s been well accepted as federal law here in Illinois,” she says. “In terms of access to bathrooms and locker rooms, five years ago it was like, ‘Ok. We absolutely have to get this done.’ I’m not saying individual students don’t face challenges, but there is virtually no resistance to facility access. The biggest question I get most often [from school clients] is, ‘We want to be supportive and proactive beyond what we’ve already established, so what can we do?’”

Where Nonbinary and Trans Students Can Turn

For those students that do face challenges, Smith urges they not only openly communicate with their parents or caretakers, but also reach out to a trusted staff member in their school, like a teacher or the school’s counselor. If the conflict mounts, she says, students should seek a lawyer or file a claim with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights or the Illinois Department of Human Rights. “We’re doing a pretty good job with transgender student access here, but I do think an unsettled area is the issue of gender fluidity,” Smith says. “If a student has transitioned and clearly identifies as their gender, ok, yep, we got that and can plan for it. But as far as where schools might struggle in knowing what to do, and where the law hasn’t really caught up, is students who are gender fluid or don’t identify as a particular gender. We don’t know all the answers there yet.” If you think you’ve been discriminated against at school, an Illinois schools and education lawyer can help. For more information, please see our overview on education law.

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