California on the Brink of Making Transgender Students’ Rights History

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By Alyson Lie

On July 3, 2013, the California Senate passed Assembly Bill 1266, the School Success and Opportunity Act, a bill specifically protecting the rights of K-12 transgender students to access gender-segregated programs and facilities in public schools. Authored by Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, AB 1266 is currently on its way to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for his signature. Should Governor Brown sign the bill, California would become the first state in the US to specifically protect these rights for transgender students.

The Need For Such a Law

Life for many students in public schools is the social equivalent of passing through a meat grinder, but this is particularly so for gender non-conforming students. From the stigmatization and harassment of peers to the misunderstanding and, at times, open hostility from staff and administrators, the school experience can be disastrous for transgender students. If we add to that the lack of sanctioned, safe access to supportive curricula, programs, and facilities, it is a recipe for failure.

Though the California Department of Education has existing policies against discrimination based on gender identity, observance and enforcement of these policies have not proven universally effective. A 2011 survey conducted by the San Francisco Unified School District reported that 66 percent of transgender middle school students said they were bullied; 58 percent were threatened or injured with weapons; and 47 percent missed school because they felt unsafe. Research published by the California Safe Schools Coalition determined that despite the prevalence of abuse suffered by transgender students, teachers and staff rarely intervene. Should AB 1266 become law, it will send the message to administrators and educators that it is their responsibility to ensure that transgender students have equal access to a safe and comprehensive education.

Precedent of Success

The largest and most successful model of a comprehensive program protecting the rights of transgender students comes from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity. Since 2005, the LAUSD, the second largest public school district in the US, has had a robust policy protecting the rights of gender non-conforming students. The February 15, 2005 directive offers a sensitive and thorough range of definitions of gender non-conforming students and covers issues of privacy, official records, restroom and locker room usage, sports and physical education classes, dress codes, discrimination and harassment.

The anti-discrimination and equal access policy at the LAUSD, with over 600,000 students—and approximately 3,000 self-identified as transgender—has been a total success in the eight years since its implementation.

Judy Chaisson, program coordinator of the LAUSD Office Human Relations, Diversity and Equity gave testimony about their anti-discrimination program at the April 17, 2013 Assembly Education Committee Hearing: “We have had such amazing, powerful, positive experiences at our schools. Our students are thriving; the staff and the other students are completely on board. It hasn’t been a problem…. It’s been inspiring to know that we’ve been able to create this opportunity for our students.”

Opposition and Response

Since the 1960s, the discourse on civil rights issues for African-American, gay/lesbian/bisexual, and now, transgender people has invariably plummeted to a discussion about public accommodations. In fact, it’s been wryly observed that in the struggle for equal rights, it’s a sure sign the opposition is losing moral ground when they play the “bathroom card.”

California senators Jim Nielsen and Ted Gaines argued against AB 1266 on the senate floor the day of the vote based on the issues of bathrooms, showers, and predatory behavior. Right wing media from Fox News and the Examiner, among others, described AB 1266 as the “Bathroom Bill” and included paranoid rants from parents fearing for their daughters’ safety.

When asked about the opposition, Carlos Alcala, spokesperson for Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, discounts the tactics of fear mongering: “The opposition has raised red flags that are really red herrings. Their hypothetical boy who just decides to say he’s transgender to get in a girl’s locker room is unlikely to get far with school administrators and teachers. By and large, the opposition revolves around adults projecting fears and sex hang-ups on kids. The bill has nothing to do with allowing or promoting sexual behavior. It’s about letting people be who they are.”

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