Editorial Board

Coy Mathis and the Next Civil Rights Fight

It has been a momentous week for civil rights, as the U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings concerning voting rights, affirmative action and same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, another significant case played out in Colorado involving a transgender 6-year-old child.

Like other civil-rights movements, the push for transgender rights stirs resistance because it stirs fear. Which is why the story of Coy Mathis, the very definition of unscary, is so important.

Born with a boy’s body, Coy has known she was a girl from the time she could articulate it. She just wants to live her life and go to school. And use the bathroom.

The Fountain-Fort Carson School District in Colorado, having let her use the girls’ room as a kindergartner, changed its policy in December, when she was in the first grade. Officials understandably were worried that as Coy matured, other girls and their parents would be uncomfortable having this anatomically male student use the girls’ room. Coy’s parents, equally understandably, sued, and this week they won the right for her to use the girls’ room.

It sounds almost like a parody: The latest frontier in civil rights, after the voting booth and the classroom and the wedding chapel, is ... the lavatory? And phrased like that, it does sound a little silly.

Yet as the U.S. moves toward embracing transgender rights -- 17 states, including Colorado, and at least 150 cities and counties have laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity on a range of issues such as employment, housing and education -- the bathroom remains a conflict zone as the rare place where use is generally segregated on the basis of sex.

The purpose is to protect modesty and eliminate the potential for prurience in the bathroom. But stalls accomplish the first goal and, given the prevalence of homosexuals and bisexuals, segregation by sex doesn’t quite achieve the second. Thankfully, no one seeks to exclude homosexuals from girls’ and boys’ rooms. Allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice wouldn’t make bathrooms any more sexually charged. They are straight and gay in the same proportion as other people, meaning a solid majority are sexually uninterested in the people they would encounter in the loo.

What’s more, it’s wrong to assume that forcing transgender kids to use the bathroom of their biological sex would make other kids feel more comfortable. Surely the average student would prefer to share a bathroom with a transgender student who dresses and acts like him or her than one who dresses and acts like the opposite sex.

The same arguments go for locker rooms and showers. Transgender students aren’t going to insist on using communal showers, but if a school setup allows sufficient privacy, they should be allowed to use the facility of the gender with which they identify.

Part of the reason Coy’s story has so transfixed America -- part of the reason she got an interview with Katie Couric -- is that she is adorable. She won’t always be so, of course. With any luck, she will grow up. She may well become a transgender adult, whose numbers in the U.S. today are estimated at 700,000.

Americans tend of think of the civil-rights movement in terms of the expansion of all those iconic rights of a democratic society -- to vote, to learn, to build a family. Yet equality also means being able to go about your life, in all its everydayness, without fear of discrimination. That is why Coy Mathis is more than just a human-interest story.