By: Sunny Sone
My best friend in high school was the loudest person I’ve ever met. He was big, pale, blonde and the most popular kid I knew. He threw parties when his parents were out of town, and everyone – the football team, the atheists, the anime club, band, you name it, everyone – would come. There would probably only be one or two fist fights.
“As a straight white male, high school was a great time,” he told me recently, four years after our graduation in 2013. He also told me, “I’m still the face of Dripping Springs.”
He was in love with me so no one gave me any shit, but I couldn’t say that was true for most of my friends. My friend Kristian is gay, and when he entered adolescence he realized he liked wearing make-up. He went to Dripping Springs High School from middle school to the middle of high school, but I never saw him carry a switchblade until we were sophomores. The administration shrugged off or flat out ignored aggressive bullying, and he felt safer carrying a weapon around than trusting authorities. He transferred to the alternative school before we graduated.
In September 2016, at the start of the school year, conservative Christian group Texas Values surfaced a fact that shocked many Dripping Springs parents: There was a transgender third grader attending Walnut Springs Elementary School, and she was using the girls’ bathroom. Even worse – the principal had given her permission to do so.
There was an angry community forum later in the month. Parents clashed. Texas Values officials egged the anger on.
But the district stood by its decision to let this particular third-grader continue using the girls’ bathroom.
“In the absence of clear guidance from the courts on the question of accommodations for transgender students, the District is handling individual student requests for accommodations on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the age of the student, the nature of campus facilities, the activities the student participates in and the privacy interests of other students,” a statement from the district said.
In November, the issue got more heated. Republican State Rep. Jason Isaac, Texas Values members and about 15 parents convened at the school district offices to urge officials to reverse the policy. Isaac, a transportation consultant from Dripping Springs, opposes the district’s stance. He has said he will support bills that bar transgender students from using the bathroom of their choice.
The district says it judges students on a case-by-case basis – there is no overarching policy and they are not trying to be political. They continue releasing the same statement they gave in September, which begins: “Dripping Springs ISD is committed to providing an exceptional education and a safe learning environment for all students. We value all children as we prepare them to be life-long learners and positive contributors to the world.”
Dripping Springs is a town of around 10,000 people. It takes about 40 minutes to drive there from central Austin. The school district is much larger than the town, encompassing a wide rural area to the west and bordering Austin Independent School District lines to the east.
The town is named after a spring that no longer drips (it spits). Locals from my time still call it the Dirty Drip because it sounds like an STD and it’s a mark of shame to have to come from a place like that.
I moved there in the eighth grade, back when the most exciting part of the year was Founder’s Day – not a day, but a whole weekend celebrating the founding of Dripping Springs. That was before there was a Walgreens and the chicken drive-through was still KFC. Now there’s an HEB and a restaurant dedicated just to making crepes.
I came from Washington, D.C., and Dripping Springs was the whitest place I’d ever seen. I took a school tour and asked where everyone else was at lunch. That was it, the guide said.
Back then, the superintendent was a racist old man who got into fights with liberal parents. One former elementary school teacher, who didn’t want to go on the record, said she didn’t think he had kids’ interests at hearts – he just wanted to make changes. The administration was always looking for reasons to fire teachers. The school was 4A, not 5A – a lower population rank. And if you were gay and bullied you’d had better look out for yourself.
Kristian was one of the first friends I made because we had English together. If he saw me in the hallway he’d give me a hug like a chiropractor – all my bones felt good after being squeezed so tight. He was a prankster – he loved to laugh.
When we got to high school he stopped laughing so much.
Kids policed each other, no matter your social rank. The girls in the in-group – the counterpart to the football boys – were lesbians or bisexual, but none came out until everyone had graduated.
I don’t know how a transgender person would have fared, but I can guess it wouldn’t have been good.
As Austin grows, so does Dripping Springs. Subdivisions have been sprouting up around town since before my time there, and they’ve only picked up pace since. Between 2000 and 2015, Hays County – the county encompassing Dripping Springs – grew 80 percent in population, from just more than 97,000 people to more than 177,000.
The area is changing politically, too – in more ways than just school policy. Though Donald Trump won Hays County, he only won by 600 votes. In the last presidential election, Mitt Romney won by more than 5,000.
Sometimes change comes in less quantifiable terms.
Once, in high school, my loud best friend and the rest of the debate team got to take a trip to Boston. A legacy Dripping Springs parent – that’s someone who’s been in Drip since time immemorial, who maybe remembers when the spring still dripped – gave him a ride along with his own son.
“If you any of those liberal Yankees give you any trouble, just give ‘em a middle finger and they’ll pussy out,” the parent said, or something like it, anyway.
“C’mon Dad,” his son said, embarrassed, and stepped out of the car.
Since the initial outcry over the bathroom issue, the community has not stood still.
After Texas Values surfaced the initial story, a group of parents poured out support for the transgender student. In October 2016, a group of parents started the “Many Stripes, One Tiger” social media group – a reference to the school district’s mascot. They seek to bring clarity to the community’s discussion of transgender issues and provide Q&As about specific issues on their Facebook page.
They do not believe an 8-year-old transgender child poses safety risks for using the bathroom of her choice.
In the months since the initial events, Texas Values has grown quieter about the case. The group last released a statement on January 30, but their president Jonathon Saenz has stopped talking to the media.
This isn’t the end of the issue.
S.B. 6, Texas’ “bathroom bill,” was filed Jan. 5. If passed, the bill would require all transgender people to use bathrooms matching their biological sex rather than their gender identity in all public buildings, would prevent any local government from allowing private businesses to make their own bathroom policies and would override current nondiscrimination laws allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice.
Texas Values and their Dripping Springs advocates support the bill. Many Stripes, One Tiger proponents oppose it – and aim to fight it.
And at Walnut Springs Elementary School, the school district stands by its original decision. This third grader will use her bathroom until she is forced not to.