Transgender students win rights under new California law

Transgender students win rights under new California law

Student Success and Opportunity Act allows transgender students to participate in all school activities irrespective of the gender listed on records
Students at the GSA Network’s Queer Youth Advocacy day last spring in California advocated for the School Success and Opportunity Act. (Photo: GSA Network)

A first-of-its-kind law in California addressing the rights of transgender students in public schools has set guidelines for administrators on how to ensure safety and equality for these students, who are at an increased risk for bullying.

Transgender students identify with a gender that differs from their sex at birth. The Student Success and Opportunity Act allows transgender students to participate in all school activities and athletic programs—and use restrooms, locker rooms and similar facilities—irrespective of the gender listed on students’ records. The law was signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown in August, and went into effect in January.

Nationwide, some 80 percent of transgender students reported that they felt unsafe at school, and nearly 60 percent said they had experienced verbal harassment in the past year, according to a 2011 survey from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.

The California law reflects a growing movement: Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts and Washington have passed statewide anti-discrimination regulations in the past eight years that protect transgender students in schools. California’s law goes further, specifically calling on school leaders statewide to allow students to participate in sports and use restrooms and locker rooms based on the gender they choose to express.

“These guidelines have been in place in some districts for a decade, and we know they have worked well,” says Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, a national youth organization that works with nearly 1,000 gay-straight alliance clubs in middle schools and high schools across California to fight homophobia and transphobia. “The new California law is aimed at making sure that there’s consistency across all districts, not just a handful that have clear policies.”

In 2005, Los Angeles USD enacted a transgender policy similar to what is now contained in the new law. Other districts—including San Diego USD—had used Los Angeles’ policy as a basis for their own regulations. “Our district has made accommodations for transgender students for many years,” says Kevin Beiser, president of the San Diego USD school board.

San Diego USD principals will work with transgender students and their families to create individualized plans to meet that student’s needs. The plan may determine whether a student will use the restroom in the nurse’s office or if they are permitted to use the girls’ restroom even if they are biologically male, for example. This is the typical procedure for most districts in the United States, Laub says.

A group of parents, students, nonprofits and faith groups called Privacy for All Students is leading an effort to put a repeal of the Student Success and Opportunity Act on the November ballot. They will need to verify 504,760 signatures by the end of February to do so. The group states on its website that it is “an invasion of student privacy to open sensitive school facilities such as showers, restrooms and locker rooms to students of the opposite sex.”

California’s new law does not allow any student to decide to use the opposite sex’s restroom without first going through a process of meetings with the principal.

Adults are usually more concerned than are their children about which restrooms transgender students use, says Joel Baum, a former district administrator from California.

“Some kids might have some discomfort with not understanding, but when they see a peer being true to who they are, the vast majority of kids understand that,” says Baum, who is now the senior director of professional development and family services at the nonprofit Gender Spectrum, a California-based organization that works with schools to create gender-inclusive environments.

Administrators also need to work to reassure concerned or confused families that the new law does not prevent any other child from learning or being successful, Baum adds.