Charles Key Needs to Go to the Bathroom. Tennessee Won’t Let Him Because He’s Trans.

By samantha.allen@thedailybeast.com (Samantha Allen)
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/Shutterstock

When Charles Key needs to use the restroom, he can’t go where the other boys go.

Instead, the high school junior has to use a teacher’s restroom on the other side of school from his classes.

The reason? He is transgender, and his Hendersonville, Tennessee, high school is one of many in the state—and in the country—that don’t allow transgender students to use restrooms corresponding with their gender identity.

“I really just want to use the restroom,” Key told The Daily Beast. “I don’t want to have to take time away from class, and nobody else has to [use the teacher’s restroom]—just anyone who’s trans.”

Now, the Tennessee state legislature is weighing a bill to protect policies like the one that keeps Key out of the boy’s bathroom. HB 1274–as the bill is called in the Tennessee House—would require the state attorney general’s office to defend local school districts that do not have transgender-inclusive restroom policies.

The bill itself, however, fastidiously avoids using the word “transgender,” stating instead that the attorney general should defend—or pay for the defense of—any “policy or practice designed to protect the privacy of students from exposure to others of the opposite biological sex” [PDF].

HB 1274 is part of what LGBT advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom for All Americans are calling a “slate of hate”—a number of anti-LGBT bills that have been moving through the Tennessee state legislature this spring.

Other bills include one targeting transgender restroom use through Tennessee’s indecent exposure law and another targeting same-sex adoption and foster care.

“There is a really dangerous slate moving in Tennessee,” Hannah Willard, associate director of campaign communications for Freedom for All Americans, told The Daily Beast. “And we are especially concerned about the movement of HB 1274 in the last two weeks—[a bill] that specifically targets transgender grade schoolers like Charles.”

HB 1274 has been moving steadily through the Tennessee House this month—and has already been recommended for passage by the House Judiciary. The draft legislation is scheduled make its final stop in the Finance, Ways, and Means Subcommittee on April 17 before possibly advancing to the floor for a vote.

A companion bill in the Senate—SB 1499–was scheduled for deliberation in the Tennessee Senate Judiciary on Tuesday, but was instead moved to next week.

Key told The Daily Beast that he is worried a bill like HB 1274 will “make it more likely for schools to make these transphobic policies” if they can count on the state backing them against any legal challenges.

If school administrators know they the attorney general will defend from them lawsuits, the logic goes, they will be that much more willing to risk litigation by implementing trans-exclusionary policy.

The Human Rights Campaign shares that concern, labeling the bill on its website “an obvious attempt to encourage school districts that want to deny transgender students access to the correct bathrooms and locker rooms.”

Transgender students like Key are in an especially vulnerable position right now: In 2017, the Trump administration rescinded Obama-era guidance instructing schools to allow students to use restrooms corresponding with their gender identity. Reports quickly followed that the Department of Education had stopped handling restroom-related complaints from transgender students.

What that means is that in states like Tennessee—where there are no formal state-level legal protections for transgender people—school districts can adopt anti-transgender restroom policies without much fear of intervention from the Trump administration.

But because transgender students can still sue school districts—often successfully—for restroom protections under Title IX, a bill like HB 1274 is meant act as a shield against litigation.  In essence, the Human Rights Campaign notes, the taxpayer ends up footing the bill to defend anti-transgender bathroom policies from transgender students.

Key wants state legislatures to realize that policies like the one at his school end up taking a toll on student well-being—and that the progress of a bill like HB 1274 only makes matters worse.

“I would like them to know that it’s not just affecting us as trans people, it’s affecting us as students in Tennessee,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s affecting our school work when we have to take time out of class, it’s affecting our school work if we are being bullied. It’s affecting us—and it can even affect other [non-transgender] students—when there’s a negative climate like that at school.”

Ever since North Carolina passed its sweeping anti-transgender “bathroom bill” in 2016, anti-LGBT legislation has become more specific, as The Daily Beast previously reported, zeroing in on areas like child welfare or religious-based service refusals. LGBT advocates have successfully fended off most of those bills, which only makes them more nervous about the possible passage of HB 1274.

“Tennessee is on the brink of becoming the next North Carolina—and the first state in the nation to pass anti-LGBTQ legislation this year,” Kasey Suffredini, president of strategy for Freedom for All Americans, told The Daily Beast, warning that the state would likely suffer the “economic consequences of passing laws that discriminate against LGBTQ people,” as North Carolina did three years ago.

Key says “it’s difficult” to live under a threat like HB 1274–and that it’s “definitely been impacting [him].” Even still, he wants the rest of the country to realize that Tennessee is not defined by the anti-LGBT legislation that some lawmakers propose every year.

“This is not a good representation of Tennessee,” he told The Daily Beast. “These bills make Tennessee into its stereotype, and not into what it truly is.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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