The Growing Battle Over Transgender Student Rights in California

Anti-discrimination bill's supporters remain optimistic despite right-wing efforts to repeal the law

Tom Ammiano
Max Whittaker/Getty Images
California State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano wrote the School Success and Opportunity Act to reduce discrimination against transgender students.
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On August 12th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the School Success and Opportunity Act – amending the state's education code in an effort to reduce discrimination against transgender students in grades K-12. But a firestorm of dissent is building around one section of the bill, stating that transgender students will have the opportunity to play on sports teams and use sex-segregated facilities that correspond with their gender identity, even if this doesn't match their birth certificate.

Opponents of the law, citing privacy concerns, have begun the process of collecting signatures to repeal the law through public referendum. Should these organizations collect the necessary 505,000 signatures required by November 6th, the law's fate will be voted on by the general public in the 2014 midterm elections.

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California State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, author of the original legislation, counters the idea that the bill is too far-reaching, saying a consistent expectation of policy is needed across California's school districts. "If we can spell out what is expected, schools won't have to guess," Ammiano tells Rolling Stone. "The law merely spells out that non-discrimination is the law of California. You want that to be broad."

Ammiano points to the Los Angeles Unified School District – which has had a transgender-inclusive district-wide policy in place for some time – as an example of how this law can improve safety without threatening anyone's privacy. "Experts told legislators repeatedly that the policy doesn't cause problems," says Ammiano. "It solves problems."

Opponents of the law, of course, disagree. Matthew McReynolds, staff attorney for the Pacific Justice Institute – an organization that has worked in favor of California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage and against efforts to ban so-called "reparative therapy" – expresses distrust in the clean track record cited by Ammiano. Says McReynolds, "In many cases families either pull their kids out of school or students feel too intimidated to fight for their privacy rights, skewing the data."

Often lost in both sides of this debate are the stories of the transgender students this law is meant to help. Ashton Lee, a 16-year-old transgender boy from Manteca, California, says he is thankful the law is in place. "As soon as the governor signed the bill, my school allowed me to use the proper restrooms," says Lee. "If the bill is overturned, it would be a huge blow to me, and I fear that I would have to return to pretending to be someone I'm not at school."

Should the 505,000 signature threshold be reached, both sides are confident in their chances with voters. "Polling specific to this referendum has shown strong support for repeal of AB 1266," says McReynolds. Yet Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, argues the opposite is true. "We are confident that this fair-minded state will support all students, including [those who are] transgender," says Davis. "Every student should have a fair chance to succeed in school so they can graduate on time."

For now, the School Success and Opportunity Act remains the law of the land in California. Ashton Lee and other transgender students can take solace in the knowledge that starting January 1st, 2014, they won't need to hide who they are anymore.

"When Californians are able to meet and become familiar with transgender people, even if only on television or online, they will come to understand the truth – that everyone should be treated with fairness and respect," adds Davis. "Every parent wants to see their child be supported and have a fair chance to succeed in school. It's no different for parents of transgender students."