New Times / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 28, Issue 28
Locals talk about a new law giving transgender students access to school facilities
BY AMY ASMAN
Bathroom. Restroom. Toilet. Loo. The place in which people do their business has many names, but one universal purpose. Most of us don’t think twice about using this facility, it’s such an everyday occurrence: When nature calls, we make our way through one of two doors, depending on our gender, and that’s that.
But imagine if you didn’t know which door to choose. What if the way you felt on the inside—your personal identity—didn’t match the way you looked on the outside?
A new state law that went into effect earlier this year is designed to make that decision—and others—simpler for transgender youth. The first of its kind in the nation, California’s School Success and Opportunity Act (AB 1266) gives students equal access to facilities and sports teams based on their gender identities.
Existing state law already prohibits public schools from discriminating against students based on race, religion, gender, gender identity, and gender expression. It also requires that boys and girls have equal access to various physical education and sports activities.
Signed into law last August, AB 1266 now allows students to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and to use facilities consistent with their gender identity, regardless of the genders listed on their records.
Last fall, a group called Privacy For All Students—which on its website describes itself as “a coalition of parents, students, nonprofit and faith groups”—launched a referendum effort to let voters decide whether to accept the legislation on the November 2014 ballot.
New Times submitted a request for comment to the group, but had yet to hear back as of press time.
On its website, privacyforallstudents.com, the group argues that AB 1266 isn’t necessary because state law already protects transgender students against discrimination and bullying.
Privacy For All Students also argues that the law is poorly crafted, and that California voters should have the right to make such an important decision.
“There are many problems with the legislation. First, it’s an invasion of student privacy to open sensitive school facilities such as showers, restrooms and locker rooms to students of the opposite sex,” a post in the site’s “frequently asked questions” page read. “Further, the legislation is poorly drafted and flawed, a one-size-fits-all approach that contains no standards, guidelines, or rules. The law does not require that a student ever demonstrated any indication that he or she considers himself or herself as transgendered.
“A student can assert a gender identity at school at any time,” the post continued. “Because gender identity is based on feelings and perceptions, he or she can be both transgender and heterosexual at the same time. Because of the lack of requirements, some teens and young adults will undoubtedly game the law.”
The term “game the law” refers to the group’s concern that some students who are straight will say they’re transgender to gain access to bathrooms and locker rooms of the opposite sex, thus compromising other students’ privacy and safety.
Based on those views, the group started collecting signatures for a petition shortly after the bill was signed into law.
According to the California Secretary of State’s Office, petitions must be signed by registered voters in an amount equal to 5 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. The current number of signatures required is 504,760.
Privacy For All Students and its supporters collected almost 620,000 signatures. The Secretary of State’s Office initially declined to count signatures in Tulare and Mono counties because questions arose over whether they were submitted in time for the deadline, which occurred over this past Veterans Day, a federal holiday. However, a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled in January that the office must count all of the signatures.
The petition created a hailstorm of activity from advocates on both sides of the issue, including Privacy For All Students, the National Organization for Marriage California, the Human Rights Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others.
Yet fears that the bill could provide a gateway for kids to peep on members of the opposite sex without repercussion is utterly bogus, according to San Miguel Joint Union School District Superintendent Dr. Curt Dubost.
“The hysteria from the far right that a group of boys could come in and could just announce that ‘We’re transgender and we want to go shower with the cheerleaders,’ that just doesn’t happen,” he said.
In many cases, what does happen is that transgender students want a simple and quiet solution as to which facilities to use. When asked about the bill, several San Luis Obispo County school officials said the same thing: It’s essentially a non-issue.
“There hasn’t been a lot of hoopla one way or the other about AB 1266 here,” said Rick Robinett, assistant superintendent of educational services for San Luis Coastal Unified School District. “I think we’re just pretty tolerant.”
Robinett said issues in accommodating transgender students haven’t risen to a significant level, reiterating that the district already prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.
“I guess the tricky part is with the use of facilities,” he said. “And we’ve had transgender students in our schools for years, and we’ve always handled things in a way that makes the student most comfortable.”
There have been plenty of opinion pieces written and protests and vigils staged. The discussion even made its way onto TV in an episode of the popular show Glee, in which a transgender character named Unique gets bullied for trying to use the girls’ restroom at her high school. As a solution, the principal, Sue Sylvester, buys a purple port-a-potty, paints a bunch of yellow question marks on it, and bolts it to the choir room floor. The episode ends with the choir teacher, Will Schuester, offering to open the staff restroom for Unique whenever she needs to use it.
But these issues haven’t reached the level at which parents are filing complaints, according to SLO County school district officials who spoke with New Times. Kathy Hannemann, assistant superintendent for educational service at Atascadero Unified School District, said whichever way AB 1266 goes—as a law, or a November ballot issue—little will change in her district’s schools.
“It has been a very quiet issue in Atascadero,” she said. “If there have been issues, it hasn’t risen to the complaint level. … But I think it’s much ado about nothing. All students have rights to come to school in a non-discriminatory environment. That has not changed. That didn’t need to change.”
Indeed, while the signatures await a stamp of either verification or failure from the California Secretary of State, nothing has changed. Though there is still no definitive answer as to whether the referendum will qualify for the ballot—let alone win over voters—the state constitution requires that implementation of the law be shelved.
A number of local districts utilize the same law firm, Lozano Smith, which advised all of its clients to hold off on implementing AB 1266, unless it fails to qualify once the Secretary of State finalizes the signature review process on Feb. 25. However, if it passes, Lozano Smith advised districts to continue holding off until after the final results of the Nov. 4 election.
The firm noted that existing laws prohibit discrimination based on gender identity: “Thus, districts should not conclude that the referendum provides a vehicle to deny any rights afforded to transgender students under the current law,” the firm said in a letter to district officials.
A brother’s perspective
Tony* is a senior at Righetti High School in Santa Maria. In a recent interview, the 18-year-old said he supports AB 1266 and the rights it extends to tansgender students.
The law is especially important to Tony because his sister, whom we’ll call Stephanie*, is transgender. He said if AB 1266 had been around several years ago when Stephanie was in high school, it probably would’ve helped her transition more smoothly.
“My brother was always really quiet, and we didn’t know what it was. I just thought he was being my quiet brother,” Tony said, adding that it wasn’t until he came out to his family as gay that his brother had the courage to come out as trans.
“She came out only to me about three months after I came out,” Tony said. “It was a bit of a surprise, but I immediately accepted her for who she was because that’s what she did with me.”
He said both revelations have been difficult for their family to accept, but they’re working on it together.
“Sometimes they still make fun of homosexuality by saying, ‘Oh, that’s so gay,’ [but gay is] not a synonym for lame or dumb or stupid,” he said. “And sometimes we argue about which pronoun to call [Stephanie]. I’ll remind them to say ‘she,’ and they’ll say, ‘but he/she hasn’t had the surgery yet.’”
Tony, for his part, is completely accepting of his sister, with whom he’s shared a room his entire life.
“I don’t see her as male anymore. I see her as who she is,” he said.
He remembers Stephanie wanting to use the girls’ restroom when she was in high school: He said, “She was afraid … that a teacher or students would ask, ‘Why are you using the girls’ bathroom? You’re a guy.’”
Also, he said she always wanted to play female characters in drama class but wasn’t allowed to.
Tony hopes the new law will help a friend of his, who is transgender, feel more comfortable at school—and in his skin.
“He has a lot of issues being himself at school, and he can’t necessarily be himself at home,” Tony said of his friend, Mark.*
Tony said Mark, who was born biologically female, has started hiding his female body parts, restricting his chest to the point that he has trouble breathing.
He said the pain Mark goes through, both physically and emotionally, is heartbreaking to watch.
“It hurts to see the way people treat [transgender people], and how society questions them,” Tony said.
As an openly gay teenager, Tony knows what it feels like to be made fun of and discriminated against, but he said there’s a big difference between being gay and transgender.
“It’s a whole different concept. Being gay is just your sexuality; when you’re transgender, you feel like you weren’t born in the right body,” he said.
For example, Tony said he sometimes likes to wear a rainbow shirt to express his gay pride, and most people don’t give it a second glance. But when someone is trans, he said, they often want to wear the clothes they feel match their gender, but don’t because society will look down on them.
“It’s really heartbreaking when you can’t be who you are in the inside, when you can’t show that to the world,” Tony said.
He said his sister suffered because “she never understood that her being a girl was OK.”
Respecting everyone’s rights
Regardless of AB 1266, SLO County district officials told New Times that schools will continue to handle situations on a case-by-case basis.
“I think we probably all are managing this in exactly the same way,” said Hannemann of Atascadero. “Students have always had the right to identify the gender they feel is appropriate for them.”
In districts to the south, the mindset is the same. John Davis, assistant superintendent of curriculum for the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District; and Maggie White, a representative for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, said they have yet to hear of a student taking advantage of the law.
“Knowing the law has passed, and that the protection is there, may encourage students to seek recognition,” Davis said. “But I think students typically don’t seek to make their peer group uncomfortable.”
Nonetheless, both districts have taken steps to educate their faculties and staff members about the law, and they’re in the process of developing a plan for addressing the needs of transgender students.
“We’re going to handle each case on an individual basis,” Davis said. “Some students may just want to be left alone [because] they’re afraid it will create animosity or discomfort with other students. Others may be perfectly fine with pushing it.”
He said he’s sensitive to the fact that this a complicated issue and that the district wants to respect the rights of transgender students and their parents, and the rights of other students and parents “who might not be comfortable with that kind of exposure.”
He thinks if the referendum does get on the ballot and the law is reversed, lawsuits will pour in to defend transgender rights.
“It will be decided in the courts, and there are going to be strong feelings on both sides of the aisles on this,” he said.
Talking ’bout their generation
Pioneer Valley High School students Aylin Saldador and David Mendez, on the other hand, don’t understand why the law is such a big deal.
“We don’t get any privacy in the boys’ bathrooms anyway—there aren’t any walls,” Mendez said. “The girls get more privacy, though.”
Saldador said she thinks her school’s student body is accepting enough to handle a law like AB 1266.
“I feel like our school is focused more on unity. We don’t really see bullying here. It’s not like what you see in the movies.”
She said there are a handful of transgender students at her school, “and everyone loves them.”
“We just help them. We don’t care who they are or who they want to be,” she said. “It’s not the parents who come here. They’re not the ones who use the bathroom. … We’re more mature than our parents think we are.”
Mendez said he experienced that sense of unity first-hand when he came out to his peers last year.
“I came out in front of all the jocks, and you know what they did? They hugged me and told me they respected me more because of it. It was amazing. I had no hate,” he said.
Both Mendez and Saldador think their generation is more tolerant than generations past because they’ve been exposed to diversity from a young age.
“Being gay is not bad,” Mendez said. “Transgender is something new because it hasn’t been out there as much as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but I think, with more attention, people will come to accept it.”
He said the adults he interacts with at school are supportive of him, too, including his coach.
“My coach asked me if I’d be more comfortable playing football or cheerleading, and I said cheering because I didn’t want to get hurt out on the field,” he said.
Now Mendez is a member of the cheer squad, along with several other boys, and he said he experienced “no hate, no laughter” when he joined.
“It was normal,” he said.
Sometimes the boys will even dress up in wigs and tutus and cheer for the other team, and while there are some people who make fun of them, he said most of the school likes it.
“My friends are amazing. That’s why I come to school,” he said. “I love it.”
Added Saldador, “We want people to feel like they’re just like everybody else. It’s our time now. Parents had their time; they should just get over it. It’s our time now.”
Amy Asman is managing editor at New Times’ sister paper, the Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com. New Times Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley contributed to this article.
*Some names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Equality through the years
John Davis of the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District said laws like AB 1266 often stir up controversy.
“The public complained about handicapped accommodations back when the Americans with Disabilities Act passed. People were concerned about who would pay for them,” Davis said, adding that many people argued disabled students shouldn’t be mainstreamed into public schools.
He said the ongoing debate over AB 1266 is typical.
“We may be working on this [law] for a while,” he added.
The following is a timeline of milestone anti-discrimination legislation.
Community Notebook 11/20/14-11/27/14 Testing the waters: Locals prepare to submit a nomination to create a National Marine Sanctuary along the Central Coast Faculty association and Santa Maria Joint Union High School District struggle to come to terms with contract Political Watch 11/20/14 Community Corner: Santa Maria Keller Williams holds Toys for Tots drive Students and employers want a four-year college in Northern Santa Barbara County Pipeline crunch-time: A Nov. 21 hearing looms as Nipomo stakeholders consider key water decisions