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Private showers for transgender police recruits a win for inclusion

Updated: May 11, 2013 6:36AM

The Chicago Police Department is installing two new private “changing rooms” with showers at its training academy to better accommodate transgender police recruits.

A CPD spokesman said the facilities are for “anyone who may feel uncomfortable in the men’s or women’s showers,” and are not intended solely for transgender individuals.

But the extreme sensitivity with which the department has handled my inquiries about the matter tells me this is not your everyday bathroom remodeling project.

Citing officer privacy, police spokesman Adam Collins said he could not comment on whether the department is expecting a transgender recruit any time soon.

Then he put me in contact with the department’s LGBT liaison, Officer Jose Rios, who doesn’t know either but lauded the shower installation as another step forward in the relationship between Chicago police and the LGBT community.

Chicago already has some transgender police officers who, like most transgender individuals, are not necessarily eager to be identified as such. Their priority is to be accepted in their new gender identity, and they would prefer to be treated like anybody else.

For that reason, I was initially concerned when I got a tip that the police department was installing a separate bathroom at the academy for a transgender recruit. Often, these types of “separate but equal” accommodations are created because someone is squeamish about sharing a bathroom with a transgender individual, and the result can be stigmatizing and discriminatory.

While I still have concerns in that regard, until we see how this works in practice, both local and national LGBT advocates tell me they believe this is a positive step by CPD, given the added complications created by the need to shower on the job.

Currently, the training academy at 1300 W. Jackson has separate locker rooms for male and female recruits, each with open group showers. That will continue to be the case.

In addition, recruits will now have the option to use the two private changing rooms, which are being created by adding showers to existing individual bathrooms with toilets. These will be gender neutral, “unisex” facilities, the same as can be found in many public locations these days.

Police recruits often switch during the day between physical training and classroom sessions and may take a quick shower in between.

“An officer chooses which restroom to use based on their self-expressed gender identity,” Collins said, reading a carefully worded statement. “Recently, CPD has taken the additional step of making two separate handicapped-accessible shower facilities at the academy available for recruits who may feel uncomfortable in the men’s or women’s showers.”

Is a transgender officer also allowed to choose which shower to use “based on their self-expressed gender identity” — or does it depend on them having the appropriate body parts? I can’t say as I know the answer, despite having asked, but I gather this will also be the officer’s choice.

Collins emphasized that “CPD welcomes all who wish to join the Department and are capable of doing the job.”

Most transgender police officers would welcome the opportunity to use a private shower such as what CPD is installing, said Patrick Callahan, a spokesman for California-based TCOPS Intl. (Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs.)

“That’s what we see as best practices,” said Callahan, whose organization counts 1,500 transgender law enforcement officers in the U.S.

The old-style open showers that used to be the norm in high school gymnasiums are no longer workable, Callahan said.

“As a transgender individual, that would make anybody a little crazy,” Callahan said, praising CPD for being forward-thinking in this regard.

Such private showers are also helpful for other individuals with body-image issues, such as surgical scars, said Jamie Richardson, president of the Lesbian Gay Police Association — Gay Officers Action League of Chicago. Richardson also endorsed the shower installation. “I wish they had that when I was a kid. I probably would have passed gym,” laughed Richardson, a lesbian who said her boyish looks made her the target of hurtful teasing in school.

Somebody will jump to the conclusion that a transgender person requested special treatment here. I’ve found no indication of that. As best I can tell, this is being done at the city’s initiative. Even the folks at LGPA/GOAL say they haven’t been able to get information.

I’d like to tell you how much this is costing, but all Collins will would tell me is that the city has spent $5,557 so far on materials.

Like many of you, I’m still trying to get my arms around all the implications of transgender rights. You may remember my columns in support of my college roommate, Dave, who became Diane after a long career in the Army.

If gender-neutral bathrooms and private shower stalls are part of what it takes to make the world a more inclusive place, then I’m glad somebody is getting it started.

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