To the surprise of some observers, legislation to prohibit transgender students from using the gender-assigned restroom of their choosing in Kentucky’s public schools was not voted out of the Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee on Thursday, falling one vote short.

The original version of SB 76 — dubbed the “Bathroom Bounty Bill” by opponents — went a step further by offering $2,500 to any student who caught a transgender student in a restroom they are not allowed in, eliciting scorn from LGBT rights advocates nationwide.

Before the bill was discussed in committee today, its sponsor — state Sen. C.B. Embry, R-Morgantown — filed a substitute that stripped out the “bounty” language. He and Martin Cothran of the Family Foundation of Kentucky told the committee their bill was not an attempt to bully transgender students, but to accommodate and protect them by providing the option of using a unisex or faculty restroom — if the school chose to do so.

Henry Brousseau, a transgender student at Collegiate High School, testifying in Frankfort Thursday
Henry Brousseau, a transgender student at Collegiate, testifying in Frankfort Thursday

Embry’s rationale was countered by the testimony of Henry Brousseau, a transgender student at Louisville Collegiate School, and Tom Aberli, the principal of Atherton High School. Last summer, Atherton’s school-based decision-making council voted to allow transgender students to use the restroom and locker room of their sexual identity, even if that differed from their gender at birth. That decision was later upheld by the Jefferson County Public Schools appeals board.

Brousseau said that while he was bullied when forced to use the girls restroom, he has endured no harassment once allowed by school administrators to use the boys restroom. The high school junior added that forcing him or other transgender students to use a special or faculty restroom sends a signal to other students that they don’t belong.

“A lot of folks think that having a separate and private restroom for trans kids is the way to go,” said Brousseau. “While that might work for some, when somebody tells us that we’re so different that the only way to accommodate us is to create a special restroom, the message is clear that we don’t belong. But the thing is, right now schools get to make their own decisions about what’s best to accommodate trans kids, and every school may decide differently. The problem with this bill is it would take away that right for schools to decide.”

Aberli said that he and others at Atherton were forced to educate themselves about an issue they previously knew little about, and that the state should not take away their authority to do what they think is right.

“What I quickly found was that this is an issue of respecting people for who they are,” said Aberli. “I’m going to boil it down: This is a civil rights issue.”

Asked by state Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, if he respected the rights of students who felt uncomfortable sharing a bathroom with him, Brousseau answered in the affirmative.

“Absolutely,” said Brousseau. “They can go use the single stall restroom, if they feel that’s appropriate and they don’t want to use a restroom with me. I don’t feel like I should have to change my life to accommodate their hatred.”

The six Republican senators who voted yes on the bill couched their vote by saying they respected Brousseau’s courage in testifying but voted for the legislation in order to “move the discussion forward.”

“Henry, I don’t hate you,” said Sen. Denny Carroll, R-Paducah. “I will continue to educate myself on this issue. But just understand that my vote is not out of hatred for you. I see you no different as anyone else.”

Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, voted against the bill, telling Brousseau: “Unfortunately, your situation is still subject to the fear, ignorance and loathing that results therefrom of something that some individuals see as different from what they understand and what they embrace.”

While the Family Foundation was counting on Sen. Johnny Ray Turner, D-Prestonsburg, to be their swing vote to pass the bill out of committee, he chose to pass on voting, leaving the bill one vote short of the majority it needed. Republican Sen. Julie Raque Adams of Louisville voted no along with two Democrats, without giving an explanation for her vote.

Fairness Campaign director Chris Hartman said the bill’s failure was a welcome surprise, as usually anti-LGBT bills fly out of Republican-controlled Senate committees.

“It’s an unprecedented success for us and we’re incredibly pleased, but we will remain vigilant, as issues like this have a way of popping back up even if they fail. But for right now, with bipartisan opposition, this bill is dead upon arrival and we are excited about it.”

Hartman added that Adams’ vote against the bill is further evidence that anti-LGBT rights legislation is not the political winner for Republicans that it used to be.

“We had high hopes that someone on the other side of the aisle would see the light and vote against this, and indeed it happened, said Hartman. “It gives more evidence that this is not a winning wedge issue for the opposition any longer. It’s not a partisan issue because LGBT civil rights are embraced by the majority of Americans, and we’re finally starting to see that in our state legislature.”

Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]


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