by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
In August, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 1266 into law. This groundbreaking legislation will allow transgender students in public schools to participate fully in all school activities, sports teams and programs that match their gender identity beginning Jan. 1. Transgender students will also be entitled to use restrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with, regardless of the gender on their birth records.
The law, the first of its kind in the U.S., was introduced by state Assembly Member Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco). Several teacher and parent organizations — including the California State PTA and CTA — supported it.
This bill coincides with a landmark lawsuit. In July, the U.S. Justice and Education departments jointly determined that the Arcadia School District in Southern California violated Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination, by barring a transgender student from gender-specific facilities and activities.
Barriers were also broken in September when transgender student Cassidy Lynn Campbell was elected homecoming queen at Marina High School in Huntington Beach.
The new legislation is designed to make schools welcoming and inclusive for transgender students. State law already prohibits discrimination in education, but transgender students are often excluded from physical education classes, sports teams and restroom facilities.
The California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees school sports, amended its bylaws to allow athletes to participate in sports based on gender identity, leaving it up to school districts to determine a student’s eligibility to play sports in a gender that may differ from birth records.
AB 1266 will change business as usual at many schools, but Los Angeles Unified and San Francisco Unified school districts have had policies in place for years to accommodate transgender students. CTA members in those districts say their policies provide students a safe place to learn — and have not presented problems. It’s important, they say, to engage the student and family in conversation to devise a plan that will work best for individual transgender students at each school site.
Removing the barriers
A student stops to chat with Wellness Coordinator Kate Baker at Downtown High School in San Francisco. The student, who looks relaxed and cheerful, is a female who has adopted the clothing and haircut of a male.
“I have two identified transgender students,” says Baker, United Educators of San Francisco (UESF). “Both are females that identify as males.”
At the beginning of the school year, Baker asks whether they prefer the pronoun “he” or “she,” along with which bathroom they prefer. One transgender student prefers the men’s room; the other hasn’t reached that comfort level yet. SFUSD students have been allowed to use facilities based on gender identification since the 1990s.
“I ask without judgment and without curiosity,” says Baker, who has a master’s in social work. “I let them know that I will share their information with school staff, so they won’t get stopped from using a certain bathroom.”
Schools need to remove barriers to education, she says. “If not being able to use a certain bathroom is a barrier to coming to school, let’s remove that barrier so our students can be as successful as possible.”
She adds that recent self-report data shows LGBT students are still more likely to be bullied and harassed and stay home from school. “I let students know that if they want to talk, I’m there for them.”
Susan Kitchell, a school nurse at Galileo High School in San Francisco and UESF member, says privacy is not an issue, “because bathrooms have locking stall doors, allowing for privacy in the chosen restroom. And we do not have students showering after PE, so that has not been an issue here.”
The school nurse is sometimes the first person a student confides with about being transgender. Her response is always the same: “Thank you for trusting me.”
Transgender students may be confused and traumatized at identifying with a gender they weren’t born with, so she provides health care information about “different ways of being” along with referrals to community support organizations for LGBT youth.
Los Angeles Unified has had policies in place similar to the new state law since 2005, and it’s been working just fine, says Judy Chiasson, the district’s diversity and equity coordinator. Often there are transgender students on a campus and nobody knows it. While the district allows students to use restrooms based on gender identity, if there is nudity (showering) or shyness, a separate facility or time of facility use is provided.
Stephen Schaffter, a physics and chemistry teacher at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School, is proud of the way his campus accommodates transgender students.
“It works well,” says the United Teachers Los Angeles member. “We have a gender-neutral bathroom that some students prefer. In time, they may transition to using another gender bathroom, and that’s fine. It’s based on a student’s comfort level, and that may happen incrementally.”
Concerns about the law
Some educators support diverse students but still have concerns about the law and how it will work. They include Samantha Carr, a teacher at Arroyo High School, who serves as adviser for the Gay-Straight Alliance.
“Overall, I think it’s a good thing, but we need to make sure that students identifying as a different gender are not harassed or bullied in any way,” says the El Monte Union Education Association member, who fears transgender students might be harassed in the restroom.
There are some transgender students at her school, she says, but none have shown a desire to use the restroom of the gender they identify with. But that may change under the new law.
Carr also questions how the new law will affect sports teams.
“Physical strength is an issue. Boys sometimes have more strength and speed, and it could be difficult for girls to compete against [a male-to-female athlete] with a physical advantage like that.”
The law doesn’t set guidelines for determining a student’s gender identity. Some critics fear that boys pretending to be transgender will visit the girls’ bathroom or locker room to catch a glimpse of undressed females. But that has not happened in San Francisco or Los Angeles, say CTA members. They point out that laws against voyeurism already exist, most students use stalls, and students won’t risk family alienation or rejection by their peers just for the possibility of getting a sneak peek.
Glad for the clarification
Staff members in the Arcadia Unified School District, where a transgender student’s parents filed a federal lawsuit, were confused when it came to treatment of a female-to-male student, says Patrick Tierney, Arcadia Teachers Association president. He believes staff made wrong choices, such as having the student use a staff bathroom, but tried to do right by the student. With a new law in place, things will be easier.
“Teachers and administration were struggling with how to deal with this young person and trying to determine where he would fit in best. They decided, on an overnight field trip, that it would be best for the student to room with one of the male adults. The student’s parents were upset and felt it was exclusionary for the boy to be with a chaperone and not the other students. What was missing in this was communication. Once we spoke with the parents and the student, it became clear that separating him wasn’t the answer. Separation called attention to the student, which was not what he needed. Students began to talk about him because of the special treatment, which is to be expected.”
Tierney is glad the federal lawsuit happened along with the new legislation, because his district now understands appropriate ways to be inclusive.
“Our district is working with an expert as part of the settlement and consulting with other districts that already have policies in place. Last year this student was in middle school, and this year he started high school. The principal and staff want him to feel comfortable and supported at his new school, and are doing everything they can to help him succeed.”
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