By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - The parents of a 6-year-old transgender girl in Colorado filed a complaint with the state's civil rights agency on Wednesday challenging a decision by local education officials to deny their child access to the girls' restrooms in her school.
The first-grader, Coy Mathis, was born male but identifies as female and had been attending Eagleside Elementary School as a girl since midway through her kindergarten year. The school is in Fountain, Colorado, a suburb south of Colorado Springs.
Coy had been using the girls' facilities, with the school's knowledge, until late December, when the principal informed her parents she would no longer be permitted access to them. Instead, she was restricted to using either the boys' restrooms or gender-neutral facilities reserved for employees or those in the school's health room, her parents said.
The parents and lawyers representing the family urged the principal to reconsider, contending that singling out their daughter as the only girl in the school banned from using the girls' bathrooms was stigmatizing and psychologically damaging.
"Since her earliest ability to express herself, she has told the world what would be obvious to anyone who spends a minute with her that she is a little girl," said Michael Silverman, executive director of the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, which filed the complaint on behalf of the Mathis family.
"Forcing Coy to be the only girl in school that has to use a different bathroom from every other student is the equivalent of painting a bull's-eye on her back," he told Reuters.
They also assert that the restroom restrictions, imposed by the Fountain-Fort Carson School District, violate Colorado's Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits schools from denying people access to a public accommodation because of their sexual orientation or transgender status.
In a brief statement on Wednesday, the school district said it had treated the family "fairly and reasonably," but declined to discuss details of the case.
In a letter urging the district to reconsider, Silverman wrote that the state Civil Rights Commission had issued regulations under the act that specifically required schools to allow transgender students access to "gender-segregated facilities that are consistent with their gender identity," including restrooms, locker rooms and dormitories.
The attorney for the district wrote back that it was in compliance with state law because Coy "attends class as all other students, is permitted to wear girls' clothes and is referred to as the parents have requested."
It said the district's decision "took into account not only Coy but other students in the building, their parents, and the future impact a boy with male genitals using a girls' bathroom would have as Coy grew older."
The school district letter added that a court in Maine last November upheld a similar decision made by a school district there, ruling there was no violation of Maine's Human Rights Act when a transgender girl in Penobscot County was barred from using the girls' restroom.
Cases such as those in Maine and Colorado are being closely watched by civil libertarians, education officials and others as legal disputes over transgender rights move to the forefront in the pursuit of equal access to public accommodations nationwide.
"Transgender rights are America's next great civil rights struggle," Silverman said.
Coy's parents, Kathryn and Jeremy Mathis, are home-schooling their daughter while they seek to settle the dispute with the district.
They and their attorney say they know of no parents, teachers or anyone else who have complained about their daughter using the girls' room at Eagleside Elementary.
"When they first told us what they were going to do, we were very shocked," Kathryn Mathis said, adding her daughter was "appalled" at hearing the school expected her to use the boys' restrooms or facilities in the school nurse's office.
"She was like, 'Well why would they do that? I'm a girl. Why would I ever go into those other bathrooms, I'm not sick. I'm not a boy. Why would I use those?'" her mother recounted.
Coy is one of three triplets - together with another girl and a boy - in a family of five children. Her older and younger siblings are both girls, their mother said.
"She very much misses her classroom and her teachers and all of her friends," Kathryn Mathis said. "She misses the social interaction that she was getting there that is so important to her childhood development."
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Prudence Crowther)