DENVER — A Colorado school district discriminated against a transgender first grader when it refused to let her use the girl’s bathroom, the state’s civil rights division has determined, a decision gay and transgender advocates say will have an indelible impact on how such cases are handled in the future.
It the Fountain-Fort Carson School District needlessly created a situation in which the student, Coy Mathis, would be subject to harassment when it barred her from the girls’ bathroom even though she clearly identified as female.
Telling Coy “that she must disregard her identity while performing one of the most essential human functions constitutes severe and pervasive treatment, and creates an environment that is objectively and subjectively hostile, intimidating or offensive,” Steven Chavez, the division director, wrote in the decision.
The dispute over whether Coy, 6, should be allowed to use the girls’ bathroom was seen by some as a critical test of how state antidiscrimination laws were applied to transgender students.
Born biologically a boy, Coy began identifying as a girl after just a few years, growing her wispy blond hair long, wearing dresses, and telling family and friends they should refer to her as female.
During kindergarten, Coy’s parents informed her school that their child identified as a girl and should be treated as one. Initially, the school, just south of Colorado Springs, agreed.
But a few months into first grade, the district barred Coy from using the girls’ bathroom, telling her parents that as she grew older and developed, some students and parents would likely become uncomfortable. It was best that Coy use staff bathrooms or a gender-neutral one in the school’s health office, the district officials decided.
Furious, the Mathises pulled Coy from school and lodged a complaint with the state’s civil rights division in February, claiming the district had violated Colorado’s 2008 antidiscrimination statute, which expanded provisions for transgender people.
After an investigation, the division, which enforces Colorado’s antidiscrimination laws, agreed. It noted that while Coy’s birth certificate stated she was male — an argument made by the school district — more recent medical and legal documents identified her as female.
It was clear, the state said, that Coy had completely integrated into society as a girl — wearing girls’ clothing, standing in the girls’ line at school and choosing to play with girls.
But the state’s ruling went even further, saying that evolving research on transgender development showed that “compartmentalizing a child as a boy or a girl solely based on their visible anatomy, is a simplistic approach to a difficult and complex issue.”
Depriving Coy of the acceptance that students need to succeed in school, Mr. Chavez wrote, “creates a barrier where none should exist, and entirely disregards the charging party’s gender identity.”
Michael D. Silverman, the executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed the complaint on the Mathises’ behalf, hailed the decision as a momentous victory and hoped it would sway how other school districts treated transgender students.
According to the group, 17 states and the District of Columbia offer some form of legal protections for transgender people. And the issue of how schools treat transgender students has grown especially prominent in recent years.
“This is the first ruling in the nation that holds that transgender students be allowed to use bathrooms that match who they are,” he said. “There are thousands of families like the Mathises who are feeling relieved and vindicated that the commission ruled that Coy is a girl just like any other girl.”
A lawyer for the school district did not respond to requests for comment. The school district had argued it acted reasonably in the dispute, saying Coy was permitted to wear girls’ clothing to school and was referred to as female.
The Mathises have since moved to Aurora, Colo., and plan to enroll Coy in school there.
“We knew that this was discrimination. So it was validating to get the state to say ‘Yes, it is very clearly harassment,’ and they were doing something they shouldn’t have been doing,” said Kathryn Mathis, Coy’s mother.
“When I told Coy we won, she got this giant smile and her eyes bugged out. She said, ‘So I can go to school and make friends?’ ”