Split over transgender bathroom mandate, two Lehigh Valley families reach across divide

    The East Penn School District in Lehigh County is caught up in a contentious debate about transgender students' use of locker rooms and bathrooms. (Luengo/Bigstock)

    The East Penn School District in Lehigh County is caught up in a contentious debate about transgender students' use of locker rooms and bathrooms. (Luengo/Bigstock)

    One weekday night, 12-year-old Ari Bowman was sitting in a booth at Applebee’s with his friends in the cast of “Extra Ticket,” Lower Macungie Middle School’s fall play. Sugary drinks and fried foods were the order of the evening.

    Ari had just finished playing “Steve” — a small part, but central to the plot, which revolves around precious tickets to the hit Broadway musical, “Hamilton.”

    This scene could have played out at any chain restaurant in any suburban school district — with one exception. A few years ago, Ari, who’s wearing black sweat pants and has buzzed hair, might have been cast in a different role. He’s transgender and began attending school as a boy in the fifth grade.

    In 2016, the Bowman family and another Lehigh Valley clan, the Coyles, were very publicly swept up in media coverage of the federal transgender bathroom mandate. But behind the sensational headlines and polarizing debate lies some space for common ground.

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    Casting heroes and villains

    On Aug. 22, incoming high school freshman Sigourney Coyle stood in front of the East Penn School Board, speaking slowly and carefully.

    “I am a woman, and I identify as a woman, and you can’t make me change in front of someone who is physically male,” she said, explaining she believed the transgender bathroom mandate violated her right to bodily privacy. The mandate, which is actually a guidance letter from the U.S. Departments of Education and  Justice, instructs school districts to allow transgender students to use the single-sex facility that conforms to their gender identity.

    Sigourney’s comments lasted just a few minutes, but coverage of her speech quickly went viral — with headlines the family says were skewed — everywhere from Buzzfeed to neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer.

    Threats and nasty calls followed the media coverage, according to Sigourney’s mother, Aryn Coyle.

    “People found my phone number,” said Coyle, who said online bullies used any connection to the family they could exploit. “My mother-in-law has been contacted and she had messages on her answering machine that were not good.”

    The Coyles say they were miscast by the media — as villains by more left-leaning sources and as heroes by anti-LGBT outlets. They don’t agree with either extreme. But their story shows just how complicated implementing the mandate is — and how easy it is for people on both sides to talk past each other.

    For one thing, the family is Christian, something Sigourney mentions in her speech. But their faith doesn’t mean they hate transgender people, said Coyle.

    “My daughter and I especially have always believed in live and let live. I can believe something without inflicting it on everybody else,” said Coyle.

    Sigourney, who is tall for her age and has hair short, also bends some gender norms herself. In ninth grade, she joined an almost entirely male vocational carpentry program offered through East Penn. When she graduates, she hopes to put those skills to use as a missionary in Belize.

    Now, the Coyles don’t support the bathroom mandate; like many critics, they feel it was an overreach by the federal government. But they say they don’t believe trans people should be discriminated against.

    According to the Coyles, Sigourney’s speech was in response to weeks of back and forth with the school district about finding an acceptable private place for her to change before gym class — such as a bathroom stall or behind a shower curtain — not about kicking trans students out of the locker room.

    Those accommodations are a few the federal bathroom mandate suggests as best practices for schools, as Sigourney wrote in a letter to the school board.

    “A letter came back that said you can change privately in the nurse’s office,” she said. “But the bathroom stalls in the locker room aren’t allowed.”

    That didn’t sit right with the Coyles, who pointed out the federal mandate forbade schools from forcing transgender students to use separate facilities.

    East Penn School District officials declined to talk about the details of those conversations, saying communications with parents are confidential.

    So, just before the start of a new school year, Sigourney went before the school board. Her mom posted a video of her comments on Facebook, where it was picked up by news outlets around the globe.

    ‘I ended up in this other place of being scared again’

    Sigourney Coyle and Ari Bowman have never met. But on the other side of town, Sigourney’s speech hit Ari’s mom, Alisa Bowman, like a ton of bricks.

    “I was like, ‘Wow, I thought we had support.’ And I ended up in this other place of being scared again,” she said.

    Again, because her son’s transition had required her to face those fears before, fears that Ari would be bullied, or perhaps worse, not accepted as a trans boy and forced to use the women’s locker and restrooms.

    Those fears seemed to crystallize around asking for him to use boys’ facilities, something she said she put off.

    “I was a complete wreck the first time he used the boys’ locker room,” said Bowman. Those fears soon fell away. “It was completely uneventful. Nobody said anything to him [and] his friends changed right next to him.”

    The stakes had been high. Before being allowed to use the boy’s restroom, Bowman said, Ari would simply not drink water all day to avoid needing to go.

    “We were walkers, so I’d pick him up from school and he’d be dancing all the way home like, ‘I can’t make it, I can’t make it’,” she said. “He’d dehydrate himself so that wouldn’t happen.”

    In addition to saving his bladder, being able use the boys’ bathroom helps Ari’s mental health. Studies on transgender youth show lack of acceptance is one factor contributing to higher depression and suicide rates among that group.

    So, after hearing Sigourney’s comments in front of the school board, the Bowmans felt compelled to respond. At the next school board meeting, Ari stood up in front of the same body to share what it’s like being a transgender student, something many of his classmates didn’t know about him.

    “I think there are so many people who don’t know what being transgender is like, so I kind of needed them to be educated,” he said.

    Afterwards, the superintendent shook his hand. For the most part, he said, students have been supportive, telling him “good job” the next time he walked down the halls of Lower Macungie Middle School.

    LGBT groups have also called on Ari as a kind of trans youth spokesman, a role he said he’s happy to do, though he’s emphasizes that he’s had a relatively easy time transitioning.

    “There are other people that probably have better stories than I do,” he said. “Nothing really drastic has happened in my transition. Other people have been kicked out of their house by their parents.”

    As for the Coyles, the school district offered a series of accommodations that they can work with but don’t want shared publicly. Without passing gym, Sigourney can’t graduate from high school.

    And while the initial hubbub has died down, cultural anxieties about gender and bodies don’t change overnight. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear a case on schools that go against the mandate, and a ruling could cause tensions to flare anew.

    If that happens, at least one thing will have changed. Before they spoke up, the Coyle family didn’t know anyone in the school who is transgender, according to Aryn Coyle.

    “We were actually contacted by two transgender students in her school in her grade,” she said, one of the few “pleasant things” to come out of their time in the media spotlight.

    Over Facebook’s messaging app, the students initially accused the Coyles of being transphobic and too focused on trans bodies, as opposed to what it’s like to be trans.

    After chatting online, Coyle and the students disagreed respectfully about the mandate — but they also found some common ground.

    At the end of the conversation, the students said they empathize with Sigourney’s plea for accommodations and they support her requests for privacy.

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