In California, lessons on transgender student access to facilities

May 16, 2016
A sign on a bathroom door.

A unisex bathroom at Oakland High's student health center isn't the solution required by state law, but it can be an additional option.

As schools across the nation work, often for the first time, to ensure a welcoming environment for students who are transgender, California has lessons to share, according to educators, advocates and students.

The first is, in the words of Eric Guthertz, principal of Mission High School in San Francisco, “there is no need to freak out.” A second is that school leaders who have bought into the idea of “school climate” improvements – including anti-bullying programs, mental health support for students and staff, and alternative approaches to suspensions and expulsions – are going to intuitively understand that the focus should be on the needs of the individual transgender student. A third is to educate the parent community about transgender children and teenagers.

School districts across the nation this week are responding to last week’s federal directive that they must provide students access to bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity, or stand in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. California is ahead of the curve. Gender identity is defined in the directive as an individual’s internal sense of gender, which may be different from the person’s sex assigned at birth.

In 2013, California legislators passed what they said was the first law in the nation to codify access for transgender students to gender-specific school activities, such as sports teams, locker rooms and bathrooms, that match their gender identity. Sixteen other states – Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Washington – and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting discrimination against transgender students, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, but California appears to have passed the first law that outlined those specific protections in education. Known as Assembly Bill 1266, the state law went into effect Jan. 1, 2014.

In some cities, a history of providing legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people has provided a foundation. “We have had a safe supportive environment for transgender youth for many, many years and we’ve had zero problems, and I literally mean zero,” said Guthertz. A transgender female was voted prom queen at Mission High in 2015, he said.

And California has the highest percentage of Gay Straight Alliance clubs in high schools of any state, according to the national nonprofit Genders and Sexualities Alliance, previously known as the Gay Straight Alliance. About half of all public high schools in California have a Gay Straight Alliance club.

But that is not to suggest that transgender students have an easy time of it. When Juniper Cordova-Goff  began coming out as transgender during sophomore year at Azusa High School in Los Angeles County, she immediately cut back on drinking water. Born biologically male but identifying as “nonbinary” – not strictly male or female – and using female pronouns, she avoided the bathroom, a largely unmonitored room that implicitly evokes vulnerability. “It’s a matter of choosing your safety over your body’s functions,” she said.

As soon as the state law passed, Cordova-Goff, now 19, walked into the office of the principal of Azusa High and told him she was going to start using the girls’ bathroom. “He was the biggest ally possible,” she said. With Cordova-Goff’s help, the principal assembled a small group of transgender students and asked what would make them feel safe.

And that, Cordova-Goff said, would be an important starting point for states and school districts that are new to the issue. “My first piece of advice would be that if there are out transgender students at school, to have meetings with them and prioritize them,” she said. Chances are these students are living in fear, she said, because some elected officials in North Carolina, Texas and elsewhere have responded to transgender people with condemnation. “Right now it’s a really scary time to come out,” she said.

Laura Kanter, director of policy, advocacy and youth programs at The LGBT Center Orange County, said that school leaders that prioritize making school a safe and friendly place – and use Local Control and Accountability Plans to put money behind those efforts – do well. At Valley High School in Santa Ana, she said, a transgender student was being bullied by his peers in 2013 and 2014. But because district leaders were supportive of the student, had invested in restorative justice training for staff and had created a partnership with The LGBT Center and parents to improve school climate, tools were at hand to help, Kanter said.

A support team went with the student into all of his classes where he told his classmates, “This is my name and this is what’s hurting me,” Kanter recalled. Other students opened up and shared their own pain of being slighted or harassed. The bullying stopped, Kanter said.

Don’t listen to “worst-case scenarios” from parents or lawyers, suggests David Vannasdall, superintendent of the Arcadia Unified School District. He said he is often called by administrators across the country for advice on addressing the needs of a transgender student. Arcadia Unified was the subject of a U.S. Justice Department investigation of a complaint that was filed in 2011 by a transgender male middle school student, whom the district required to change for gym class in a private bathroom across campus rather than with his peers. The complaint was resolved in 2013 with an agreement in which the district admitted no unlawful conduct.

“I am trying to spare folks the pain I went through,” Vannasdall said.

The first mistake, he said, is for a school to lose its focus on the student. “You call your attorneys and their advice is always about liability – you can’t do this, you’re going to offend these other students,” Vannasdall said. “That’s where it goes wrong.” The “worst-case scenario” becomes the focus, he said, instead of the fears and concerns of the student before them.

“What we did was we got the attorneys out of the room and we worked with family and the school,” he said.

“All we had at that time is a student who just wanted to go to school and learn,” he said. “When we focused on that, it made it simple and safe.” Allowing the student to change for gym in the boys’ locker room turned out not to be a big deal, he said. No one’s taking showers after gym class anymore, he said. And, “it’s very easy and possible for a student to change clothes discreetly without anyone knowing.”

Arcadia Unified and school districts across the state have looked to the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest district in the nation, which has had a policy of inclusion for transgender students since 2005 without reported incidents.

Following passage of the California law, an opposition group warned of boys sneaking into the girls’ bathroom and attacking them and girls who would be traumatized by the presence of a transgender female in a girls’ bathroom stall. But opponents failed to gather enough signatures to launch a ballot initiative to repeal the law.

And no such incidents have been reported, said Asaf Orr, attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “As far as I can tell, it’s been successfully rolled out,” he said. He added, “There were threats of lawsuits. None materialized.”

“We’re not aware of any large-scale objections or controversies related to it,” said Troy Flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association, which in 2014 issued guidance for school district members. The advice noted that much of bullying behavior at school consists of students being harassed because they don’t fit stereotypical notions of feminine or masculine behavior and that the effect of this harassment on children and teenagers can be “traumatic and enduring.”

In fact, 63 to 78 percent of transgender adults who suffered physical or sexual violence at school, including in post-high school education, reported attempting suicide at some point in their lives, according to a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA. In contrast, transgender children who are allowed to change their names and the way they dress to correspond to their gender identity have good mental health outcomes, according to a February study in Pediatrics by researchers at the University of Washington and UCSF.

The biggest issue around Assembly Bill 1266 appears to have erupted in February at a school board meeting in the Poway Unified School District in San Diego County. A parent said her son came home upset because a transgender male was in the boys’ locker room at Rancho Bernardo High School. Supporters of the transgender student and supporters of the parent clashed verbally.

Soon after, the district proposed constructing a few single-person dressing rooms in all middle school and high school locker rooms, for use by any student. California law, like the federal guidance, explicitly states that transgender students must not be forced to use separate facilities.

Kathie Moehlig, executive director of TransFamily Support Services and a spokeswoman for the transgender student’s family, said that many high school students would prefer to change clothes in private. “It’s a win for all students,” she said.

When parents show up in large numbers to speak out against transgender students in bathrooms, that’s an indication that the school district needs to include the community in its process of following the letter and the spirit of laws protecting transgender students, Orr said. “School districts need to bring the  community along in that process.”

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