About a Girl: Coy Mathis' Fight to Change Gender

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The next time Coy begged to wear barrettes in his shaggy hair while they ran errands together, Jeremy cringed but relented. At the store, an older woman looked at father and son for a long moment, then approached. Jeremy braced himself.

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"You have a pretty baby girl," the woman cooed.

Jeremy blinked. "Thanks!" he practically shouted with relief. He looked down at Coy, who beamed with pride.

For the next year and a half, while his parents indulged his desires, Coy returned to the happy, playful child he'd once been, smiling as he romped around the backyard with a giant Minnie Mouse-style hair bow atop his head. They let him wear whatever frilly thing he wanted, gave him a Barbie, honored his wish to paint his bedroom pink and, although they continued calling him "he," Coy seemed satisfied. His parents were thrilled. In 2011 they signed Coy up for half-day kindergarten right on schedule at the local public school, Eagleside Elementary, a sprawling building of tan-and-maroon brick, with the bland, spare look of an office park. On Coy's registration form, under "gender," they checked "boy."

"I don't wanna wear this!" Coy would protest of the boys' pink polo shirts his parents had thought a fair compromise; sending their boy to kindergarten dressed in girls' clothing was out of the question. "You can wear whatever you want when you're not in school," they told him, in voices patient but firm. "But these are appropriate clothes for school." Coy was miserable. In class he was anxious, tearful, unable to focus and made few friends. At the end of each three-hour day he'd trudge out of school crying because some classmate had referred to him as a boy. The moment Coy got home, he'd strip off his clothes as though they were suffocating him, right down to the pink underwear his parents let him wear as a consolation, and put on a dress to relax.

One day in mid-November, Coy's kindergarten teacher pulled Jeremy aside at pickup time to say there'd been an incident: That morning, they'd divided the kindergartners into two lines, boys and girls – and Coy had lined up with the girls. "You're a boy," the teacher had corrected. Coy had sobbed for the rest of the day.

At home afterward, Coy remained inconsolable. "Even my teacher doesn't know I'm a girl!" he wailed, retreating to his bedroom to curl up with his pink blankie.

Something needed to be done; Kathryn and Jeremy recognized they couldn't continue onward like this. The "wait and see" approach had made sense in theory. But as Coy got older, they began to realize there was no middle ground. When it came to gender, they would have to choose one or the other, pink or blue. It also struck them that, by allowing Coy to be a girl at home and forcing him to be a boy at school, they had effectively helped their child to carve out a closeted double life. "We were thinking, 'If we give you a safe space to be who you are, that's our way of being supportive,'" recalls Kathryn. "But we were really sending the opposite message: It's not safe, but we'll give you a place to hide." They were ready for a new approach. Coy had long since made his choice; it was time to fall into line behind him. "This whole wishy-washy 'What are we doing?' That was done," says Jeremy.

With the help of the support group TransYouth Family Allies, the Mathises met with a psychologist in Boulder, Colorado, who noted that Coy met the criteria for gender dysphoria: He insisted he was the opposite gender; he was persistent about it over a protracted time period; and the incongruity was causing him distress. Now that Coy had an official diagnosis, their next step was clear. And so it was that, in December 2011, Coy showed up for kindergarten in a rainbow dress and pink leggings, chin-length blond hair held back with barrettes, and a baby-toothed smile – no longer a "he" but a "she."

With the wattage on her personality dialed back up, Coy Mathis proved a popular little girl. At recess she and the other kindergarten girls played Mommies with their baby dolls, and at pickup time her friends would call out her name and wave elaborate goodbyes. There had been some questions at first. "I thought you were a boy," some children asked her. "No, I'm a girl," Coy answered, which satisfied most kids; they appeared to accept the gender switch as normal. Only one kid, a girl, seemed perturbed. "You're not a girl – you're a boy!" she'd insist day after day, upsetting Coy so much that Kathryn finally asked the teacher to move the other child's seat to a different part of the classroom.

Reactions among the kindergarten parents were harder to gauge. No one said anything rude, but Jeremy and Kathryn noticed that fewer parents engaged them in small talk and some gave them a wide berth. Kathryn was heartened by the handful of people who approached asking how they might explain Coy's situation to their own five-year-olds. The bluntness of her answer may have taken them aback: "The best way to explain it is, no bodies are the same. Some girls have penises and some boys have vulvas." She was politely thanked for her advice.

Surely, the community's mostly gracious reaction had much to do with the tone set by Eagleside Elementary's administration, whose support had surprised the Mathises. When, after their visit to the psychologist, Kathryn had e-mailed Eagleside asking for a meeting "regarding Coy and the whole boy-girl thing," she and Jeremy had been unsure of what sort of reception they'd get. After all, one of the town's chief exports was the vociferous opposition to any laws favoring gay or transgender rights. When, in 2008, a proposal had passed in the Colorado legislature to expand the state's anti-discrimination law to protect people based on sexual orientation, including trans people, Focus on the Family had lobbied for its veto, warning that the law would expose women and children to dangerous perverts who would now freely lurk in public restrooms. Throughout the state, Focus ran a radio scare ad titled "Predator," which specifically cited the threat of trans people in schools. "If the Colorado legislature has its way, we could all be dealing with a new type of predator," warned the announcer. "And instead of our kids worrying about class work, they'll be worrying about who might be in the restroom with them."

The proposal had passed anyway, making Colorado one of 17 states that now prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender expression. Kathryn and Jeremy discovered the law's existence while doing research in preparation for their sit-down with Eagleside administrators and, on the day of the meeting, had arrived armed with a printout of the particulars. They'd been pleased to discover that the four staffers, including the school principal, had shown up with a copy of the state law too.

"They asked what they could do to help," remembers Kathryn. "The school psychologist was just giddy." As a result, Coy's transition had gone so smoothly that by the end of kindergarten and into first grade, she was thriving: happy, succeeding in school and coming home with her backpack full of birthday-party invitations.

So the Mathises were unprepared when, one night in December 2012, they got a call at home from Principal Jason Crow. "Hey," he said casually, "we have to have a meeting soon about Coy." He informed them that Coy would no longer be permitted to use the girls' bathroom. Kathryn and Jeremy were stunned. "I started ranting and raving," Kathryn says, "and then I went into action. I looked up the law to make sure nothing had changed, and it hadn't." The school had never reported any problems with Coy's gender status before; the Mathises couldn't imagine what had triggered the sudden policy switch.

But unbeknownst to the Mathises, a debate had been brewing for months. Unlike kindergartners, who had a gender-neutral bathroom in their classroom, first-graders used the boys' and girls' bathrooms down the hall. Some parents were already touchy about Coy; one mom had complained to Crow about her "moral issues" with Coy's upbringing – how would they react to Coy using the girls' room? As later explained in legal documents, the superintendent of the Fountain-Fort Carson school district was concerned about the precedent Coy's access to the girls' bathroom would set.

"The district also had to take into consideration that this would not be an isolated request, and that it was probable that it would be faced with one or more requests in the future," the superintendent wrote. "And perhaps by a student much older and more physically mature than Coy." The terrifying prospect of this hypothetical older, maturer student was key to their analysis. As attorney William Kelly Dude would write in the accompanying position paper, while perhaps it seemed acceptable for a harmless six-year-old like Coy to enter the girls' room, he vividly described what a future infiltrator could look like: "a male high school student with a lower voice, chest hair and with more physically mature sex organs who claims to be transgender and demands to use the girls' restroom" – a menacing portrait of an impostor that echoed the threat of Focus on the Family's "Predator" ad. That hairy deviant would soon be Coy herself, as Dude would write the Mathises: "As Coy grows older and his male genitals develop . . . at least some parents and students are likely to become uncomfortable with his continued use of the girls' restroom." The decision had come down swiftly: For the protection of the district as a whole, Coy was to be banned from the girls' restroom.

"You know this is against the law, right?" Kathryn demanded of Principal Crow in his office a couple of days after his phone call. This wasn't just about finding Coy a toilet. It was about the larger message Coy would be forced to internalize every time she had to relieve herself: that she was abnormal, that there was something so grotesque or unsafe about her that her very presence in a place as delicate as a bathroom was intolerable. And Coy wouldn't be the only one digesting that attitude; so, too, would her peers.

"There's nothing I can do," Crow, a tall, soft-spoken man with dark, slicked-back hair, told Kathryn. "My hands are tied."

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"Then the kids aren't coming back to school," Kathryn snapped, storming out of his office. The Mathises were bewildered to realize that the protections they'd thought Coy had by law didn't seem to protect her at all in reality – and they worried about what that gap might mean for the rest of Coy's life. "If we just back down, then it's going to be a fight again in middle school, and in high school, and again in college," Kathryn says. "But if we can get the big fight over with to make sure these places know they have to follow the law, then maybe we won't have to do it forever."

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