PALATINE, Ill. — Earlier in life, Nova Maday was too nervous to come out as transgender at school, fearing teachers and fellow students would never accept her.
The 18-year-old chooses her words carefully as she discusses her decision to sue for locker room access at her suburban high school district, which is already embroiled in a historic battle over transgender rights that set national precedence a few years ago.
“A lot of people hear ‘this trans student’ or ‘this trans person,’ and a lot of the time it’s very non-human,” she said, her hazel eyes introspective behind glasses, framed by her long rainbow-colored hair. “I wanted to put my face out there, not for myself, but to also show people I am a real person. I’m just like you. And anyone who is trans is not alone.”
Maday filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court last week, claiming that Township High School District 211 in Palatine, Ill., has in the past denied her use of the girls’ locker room during physical education class and more recently restricted her to an “unspecified private changing area within the locker room,” where no one else is required to dress.
Officials at District 211 — the largest high school district in the state — say these allegations misrepresent the accommodations extended to Maday and other transgender students.
“District 211 has provided caring and responsive supports for transgender students who daily use bathrooms and locker rooms of their gender identity in multiple schools,” district Superintendent Daniel Cates said in a written statement recently. “Every transgender student in District 211 who has requested use of the locker room of their identified gender has been offered such access, along with other supports within an individual support plan.”
Yet Maday’s legal fight follows a similar case that made headlines across the country, dividing the greater Palatine community while mirroring a larger battle over transgender rights nationwide. Another transgender student also seeking access to the girls’ locker room had filed a complaint against District 211 with federal authorities in 2013, marking the first time a school district was found to have violated Title IX based on gender identity.
The teen in this landmark case was identified publicly only as “Student A.”
Administrators agreed to let Student A use the girls’ locker room and also installed privacy walls, but then a group of parents sued the district and federal government for violating the right to privacy of and creating a hostile environment for other students. That lawsuit is ongoing.
While Maday is concerned about facing similar backlash, the Palatine High School senior said it’s important that her identity be made public as she continues the fight for equal access.
“It was a difficult decision, but I think the right decision. For a long time, I was scared to put myself out there,” she said. “As scary as it can be, the world is changing. It’s becoming a more accepting place.”
‘BE WHO YOU WANT TO BE’
The teen was sitting up in bed one night a few weeks into her freshman year when she decided it was time to come out.
“Information about me,” she wrote in an email addressed to all of her teachers. “First, I’m transgender. In case you are not fully sure what I mean by that, I do not identify as male, like I was assigned at birth. Instead I identify as female … I would like to state that my chosen name is Nova, and I would ask that you call me by this in class …”
She clicked “send” at 10 p.m. on Oct. 2, 2014. Eight minutes later, she got her first reply.
She recalls that she read it and wept.
“Nova, it takes a lot of courage to be open with this,” one of her teachers wrote, “and life is too short to not be who you want to be.”
Until then, she had only shared her gender identity with family and a few close friends because she was scared of how others would react.
Maday attended private schools before her family moved to northwest suburban Palatine about four years ago. Before high school, she said other kids mocked her for seeming feminine, calling her anti-gay slurs in person and online. She avoided using public restrooms. Feeling rejected by her classmates as well as her own body, Maday said she had fleeting thoughts of suicide and seriously contemplated running away.
Things changed after coming out at Palatine High. When she raised her hand in class the next day, she said she was called Nova and referred to as “she” and “her” by teachers, and her peers followed their lead. Her grades in most classes improved, she said, and she was overall happier.
But she was told by faculty that she could not use the girls’ locker room, according to the lawsuit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and a Chicago law firm. She began using the nurse’s office to change, but her anxiety, depression and gender dysphoria heightened because of the requirement that she dress separately from other girls, the lawsuit said.
Maday said that the separate changing area singled her out from other students and often made her late to class, affecting her grade.
“It felt humiliating,” she said. “It really felt like they were making me stand out and pushing me off to the side, in a literal sense.”
In early 2016, Maday began using a separate locker room, which had to be unlocked by a faculty member. One day Maday arrived to find that her locker, which contained her gym clothing, had been removed without notice due to renovation, according to the lawsuit. School officials at first couldn’t locate the locker but it was later found on the school’s loading dock, the lawsuit said.
Maday recalled being in tears as she finally retrieved her belongings, missing much of class.
Then she went back to changing in the nurse’s office, according to the lawsuit, but then she would miss notes posted inside the girls’ locker room listing the location of the day’s class.
“Isolating and singling out Nova from the other girls by forcing her to dress separately for P.E. and requiring her to at times wander the halls looking for where her class was being held were extremely upsetting experiences for Nova,” the lawsuit said.
While she has in the past agreed to take a physical education waiver, Maday said she wants to take gym class along with everyone else.
“Being an equal member of the community, being treated just like every other girl in school,” she said.
‘LIKE A REBIRTH’
Maday’s favorite classes are art and science, particularly a current astronomy course. She chose the name Nova out of that love for space, based on the concept of a supernova, “when a star dies and collapses in on itself and explodes,” she said. “It sounds sad, but it becomes something large and interesting and beautiful. Sort of like a rebirth.”
Maday said she became hopeful when news broke about resolution to the Student A case.
“I realized that I was not alone in this,” Maday said. “I was hopeful that maybe now I will actually get access to the locker rooms. Of course, that didn’t happen.”
A school official told her mother “the settlement only applied to Student A and would not extend to any other student in the district,” according to the lawsuit.
Then in 2016 Maday was again encouraged by a ground-breaking directive from then-President Barack Obama’s administration that schools must accommodate transgender students, including allowing access to locker rooms and other facilities based on gender identity. But in February, the Trump administration rolled back those protections, arguing that decisions on access should be made locally.
Maday’s lawsuit contends the district has treated her differently than other female students, in violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act. It asks the court to order District 211 to grant all students the right to use facilities matching their gender identity, as well as damages, including for emotional distress.
The group D211 Parents for Privacy, which is suing the district and federal government in federal court, has opposed locker room access based on gender identity.
“We support providing accommodations to students who request one, but the locker room of the opposite sex is not a reasonable accommodation, nor is it compassionate to their fellow classmates to demand this,” said group spokeswoman Vicki Wilson.
Despite this kind of opposition locally and across the country, Maday said she believes that transgender access to locker rooms and other facilities are actually a nonissue for most students at her school.
“I know there’s people in the community who have differing opinions, but I don’t view it as a personal attack against me if they were to lash out,” she said. “It’s not a personal attack against me so much as it is the idea of who I am. And I know that all they need is a level of human understanding to it.”