California finds itself once again on the cutting edge of a controversial social experiment. This time, the fight is about how the state will instruct school children about sex and gender identity. In August, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1266—the vague, yet sweeping, transgender “bathroom bill”—into law. The controversial legislation may be summed up in its final 37 words: “A pupil shall be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.”
San Francisco Democrat Tom Ammiano authored AB 1266 with the support of the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers. He touted the bill as essential to protecting the rights of students with “gender-identity issues”—young people who, for a variety of reasons, don’t identify with the biological sex into which they were born. In reality, California already protects those students against discrimination, and schools were redoubling their efforts to combat bullying well before Ammiano and his colleagues drafted AB 1266. So what’s the point of the new law? As political strategist Frank Schubert points out, the legislation is intended to “advance an adult political agenda by special interests [that] wish to use our public schools as a tool to strip gender and gender differences from societal norms. In the process, the privacy and security interests of all students, including those who are transgendered, are compromised.”
Schubert is working with a coalition of parents, students, and faith-based groups called “Privacy for All Students” to block the law from taking effect on January 1. The group recently submitted more than 600,000 signatures to place an initiative on the November 2014 ballot that would repeal AB 1266. If the petition drive succeeds, the law would be suspended until voters weigh in next year. (The way the process works, at least 505,000 of those signatures must be deemed valid for the measure to qualify.)
Introducing gender confusion to schoolchildren is nothing new. In 2011, backed by a $1,500 grant from the California Teachers Association, a group called Gender Spectrum presented some interesting lessons over two days to an Oakland elementary school. In a fourth-grade class, the trainer focused on gender-identity issues, giving students cards with information about transgender clownfish and homosexual geckos to illustrate the variations in nature that occur in humans, too. According to an account of the training, students learned that “Gender identity is a spectrum where people can be girls, feel like girls, they feel like boys, they feel like both, or they can feel like neither.” Why are nine year-olds being exposed to sexual concepts and anomalies that they are totally incapable of understanding and that may be frightening and confusing to them?
That same year, state legislators passed and Brown signed the FAIR Act, which mandates, beginning in Kindergarten, “the inclusion of the political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into educational textbooks and the social studies curricula in California public schools by amending the California Education Code.” AB 1266 might be best understood as a sequel to the FAIR Act.
The problem with the bathroom bill is that it’s much too vague. Who decides whether a student is or is not transgendered? The law does not stipulate or make room for parental involvement. Apparently, any child of any age can self-identify at any time as a member of the opposite sex, requiring the school to make special accommodations for him or her. The few school districts in California that already take gender identity into account have at least adopted some minimal standards that would guard against abuse. As Schubert points out, “in order to claim a gender identity that differs from their biologic sex, a student in San Francisco must have presented a gender identity ‘exclusively and consistently at school.’ AB 1266 contains no such requirement, allowing any student to assert a different gender identity at school at any time.”
Perhaps the least reported facet of this contentious law is just how few children would take advantage of it. The National Center for Transgender Equality reports that at most 1 percent of the U.S. population is transsexual. The Williams Institute, “dedicated to conducting rigorous, independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy,” estimates the population of transgender Americans at 700,000, or about .233 percent of the whole. In a school of 600, it’s hard to imagine more than a handful of students would be “sexually conflicted” enough to identify as transgendered. How does it make sense to enact sweeping social legislation for the ostensible benefit of so few kids?
To be sure, some children have gender conflicts, and their needs should be addressed, but the new law does not appropriately do this. It’s really about forcing acceptance of a radical political agenda. Instead of a sweeping law to help the afflicted few, why not give schools and districts some leeway? (Schools are not all of one type. For example, some have bathrooms with private stalls, while others have no doors.) If privacy is a concern at one school, why couldn’t students with gender-identity issues use separate unisex bathrooms and private changing areas if they’re not comfortable using the facilities that align with the gender listed on their records? This would ensure the dignity and privacy of everyone.
As it happened, the ballot measure’s supporters submitted their signatures on the same day California kicked off Transgender Awareness Week, which culminates in the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Perhaps instead of writing laws creating awkward new rules for schools, legislators could rededicate themselves to the task of providing a safe environment for all children. Unfortunately, this poorly written and potentially damaging law does nothing on that score.