This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
City Council passed a package of bills on Thursday that will require schools and other organizations serving youth to adopt policies designed to protect those who are transgender, non-binary, and gender-diverse from discrimination.
“City Council just took a big step toward making this city safe and affirming for all people,” said Council member Helen Gym, who introduced the legislation. “For far too long, trans and nonbinary people have lived with the uncertainty that their jobs and their lives are not protected. Every Philadelphian deserves the right to live their life with dignity. Today, we move closer to that goal.”
She cited statistics showing that gender non-conforming people have higher rates of suicide, depression, and social victimization.
The Philadelphia School District already has a policy shielding transgender and non-binary students from discrimination, which includes a requirement that they be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms for the gender that matches their identity. One bill would require the District to go beyond that by mandating that staff be trained in nondiscriminatory behavior. That bill was co-sponsored by Council members William Greenlee, Mark Squilla, and Derek Green.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, spoke out in support of this legislation. “We owe it to every single child in Philadelphia and across the country to provide the very basic human rights outlined in [this bill],” he said in a statement provided by Gym’s office. “We must support our young people in every facet of their life, and that includes actively confirming their right to exist on the most fundamental human level.”
Although the District has established a nondiscrimination mandate, charter schools, which educate about 70,000 city students, have been free to set their own policies. The new law will require them to follow the nondiscrimination requirements. The PFT represents District teachers but not those in charters.
Another bill would require one gender-neutral bathroom on each floor of City Hall and in every new and renovated city-owned building. Greenlee and Squilla cosponsored that bill.
The third bill, cosponsored by Green, Greenlee, Bobby Henon and Blondell Reynolds Brown, updates and expands the definitions of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the city’s anti-discrimination law.
In a statement from Gym’s office, advocates, health experts, and individuals who have faced discrimination praised the new laws as necessary and forward-looking.
Linda Hawkins and Nadia Dowshen, co-directors of the Sexuality Development Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said they work with more than 1,300 transgender and gender-diverse children and adolescents. Many of them have experienced bullying in schools and social settings.
“When we work with patients, families, and school staff to ensure a better environment for transgender youth in our clinic, and youth can then go to school and learn rather than feeling excluded or discriminated against, we see positive impacts on their health and well-being,” Hawkins and Dowshen said.
At a hearing last month, students testified about the bills. Christina Sorenson of the Juvenile Justice Law Center pointed out that Pennsylvania does not have a non-discrimination law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity in its foster care or juvenile justice systems. Youth activist organizations, including the Philadelphia Student Union, Asian Americans United, VietLEAD, and Youth United for Change, issued a joint statement in support.
Evan Thornburg, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, and Rue Landau, executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, also urged passage of the bills. Mayor Kenney is expected to sign them.
“The Mayor supports the legislation and intends to sign the bills, pending final review by the Law Department,” said his spokesman, Mike Dunn, in an email.
“Students do best in environments in which they feel connected, supported, and celebrated,” said the policy director at the Education Law Center of Philadelphia, Reynelle Brown Staley, and staff attorney Paige Joki in a statement. “Far too often, LGBTQ students are deprived of opportunities to learn and thrive simply because of who they are.”
There were no dissenting votes on Council for any of the bills, although not every member was present.