The Unshocking Truth of How California's Transgender Law Works in Schools

The effort against the School Success and Opportunity Act has failed. Now what?
(Image: Design by Lauren Wade)
Feb 27, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Sarah Fuss is senior special projects editor at TakePart. She previously edited TakePart on MSN Causes and was a senior editor at Yahoo!

California election officials have given the thumbs-down to the effort to repeal the state's new transgender student rights law. The campaign did not collect enough verifiable signatures to put its referendum on the November ballot. With the School Success and Opportunity Act (A.B. 1266) safe for now, schools are focusing on the best ways to institute the law that went into effect Jan. 1 and gives transgender students the right to try out for sports teams and use bathrooms and locker rooms in accordance with their gender identity.

Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, has been fielding calls from California school administrators wanting to know the best practices for implementing the law. He explains that the change at schools is quieter than the public may think. "I'm not aware of any schools making big pronouncements," he says. "In general this is about making sure schools know how to work on an individual basis with students to ensure they have what they need to be successful in school based on their gender identity."

Davis relates the story of 16-year-old Ashton Lee, a student in Manteca who has been an outspoken supporter of the act. Lee was born female but lives his life and attends school as a boy. Yet, his school originally assigned him to the girls' gym class, in which he was made to choose between dance and aerobics. Because of the passage of A.B. 1266, Lee and his parents were able to meet with the school administrators and make a plan for him to join the boy’s P.E. class. Davis reports, "He’s doing so much better now that he can be consistent about his gender through the school day.”

At Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, the rights enforced by A.B. 1266 are already established. Four years ago, principal Sara Stone found herself ahead of the law when a transgender student, who identified as male, and his family came to her to ask if he could use the boys' bathroom. "It was a no-brainer," Stone says. "We were like, 'Let's let him use the bathroom he needs to use.' " And there was zero falloutnot from parents or kids.

"I don’t necessarily think it’s because everyone is so open in Oakland," Stone says. "We certainly have people from all different religious backgrounds and beliefs; we’re a very diverse school. But I think the main thing is that at our school our goal is to create a welcoming and caring school community for all students, and this was one way we did it. And I think that all our families really appreciate that, because we’re doing that for all of our students.”

With that experience behind her, Stone has some ideas for how she would introduce the law at state schools unfamiliar with the needs of transgender students. It's a two-way approach. “I would recommend that the School Success and Opportunity Act goes into their parent handbook and policies, so that it’s just really clear and everyone gets that this is just what we do," she says. "And you continue to work case by case, and you really support each child. A best practice I’m proud of at our site is that we really do focus on social emotional needs of every student and we really pay attention to who our kids are. So I think it’s both. You have to do both.”

Those social emotional needs are more important than people may realize: The attempted suicide rate in the transgender community is 40 percent, 10 times higher than that of the general population.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the act last August. That same month the repeal effort was launched under the name Privacy for All Students, a coalition of religious groups, parents, and students, and by December it had turned in 619,387 petition signatures, of which 504,760 would have to be verified by county officials to land a referendem on the state ballot. On Tuesday, signature verifications came up 17,276 short.

Privacy for All Students did not respond to our request for an interview yesterday, but a recent post written by Danielle Cullum on the group's website said, "At Privacy for All Students we are preparing for the next stage of the battle," which will be a dispute of those rejected signatures that the campaign believes, "will not survive a legal challenge." At the end of her post, Cullum writes, "While so many of us want to be compassionate to those that feel that biology has betrayed them, we can’t help but notice that we are living the modern equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes."

The potential for student discomfort caused by co-ed nudity has been the focus of the opposition, and that's one of the reasons Davis says the Transgender Law Center is pointing educators to California's school board policy. "California has already issued guidance that helps schools handle requests by transgender students, and it works with all students around privacy concerns," he says. "For example, if someone is concerned about the privacy in the locker room, investing 50 cents in a curtain that anyone can use can go a long way."

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.