The Grade Blog

Sunday, Aug 25 2013 12:03 AM

Schools, parents work through practicalities of new transgender law

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Two weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown's controversial decision to sign Assembly Bill 1266, Kern County parents and schools are scrambling to figure out what it will mean for students and how it will be implemented.

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, mandates that K-12 schools allow transgendered students access to the restrooms, locker rooms and sports teams of the gender with which they identify, regardless of their physical anatomy.

The law caught most local parents off guard. Some only found out about it after the governor had signed it. Now they're storming school board meetings with questions.

Transgender is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, expression or behavior does not conform to what's typically associated with their sex by birth, according to the American Psychological Association.

But whether people psychologically and emotionally feel like the opposite gender, and whether they will be perceived and accepted as such, are two very different issues.

At a standing-room-only meeting of the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District last week, one father urged the board not to comply with the law and demanded each board member state publicly where he or she stood on the issue.

Some parents have threatened to home school their children or put them in private school if their districts don't fight to have the statute modified or repealed.

"I'll pull my kids out before I let them do this to us," said Miranda Green, a 26-year-old mother of two who lives in the Rosedale Union School District.

In some ways, any actions taken in response to the law are just symbolic. In the politically conservative Central Valley, it's very rare for school-aged children to publicly express identification with the opposite gender.

The California Interscholastic Federation, or CIF, regulates school sports and can only recall one transgendered athlete in the entire state competing last year. That student lived in southern California.

There just aren't a whole lot of recognized transgendered children in public schools, said Steven Shelton, superintendent of the K-8 Norris Union School District in northwest Bakersfield.

"This will be my 35th year here in the Norris district, and it's never come up," he said.

Schools are nevertheless educating employees and preparing, just in case.

Greenfield Union School District Superintendent Chris Crawford sent his staff a memo last week saying it was too early for the district to develop a specific response to the law but would do that prior to its January start date.

In the meantime, he said in an interview Thursday, the southeast Bakersfield K-8 district "is still going to be protecting students, as we always have, and dealing with issues as they arise on a case-by-case basis."

That's pretty typical, said Robert Meszaros, spokesman for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office.

"While AB 1266 is the first of its kind in the county to be passed into law, school districts have been dealing with this issue for some time on a case-by-case basis to ensure that everyone's rights are protected, both in terms of privacy and access," he said.

State law already prohibited discrimination in schools based on gender identity, Meszaros said, but KCSOS will be working with schools to make sure they fully understand the new requirements and are addressing parent concerns.

"This is clearly a sensitive topic in our community, so districts should be prepared to keep the lines of communication open and honest," Meszaros said.

Even those tentative steps are sparking outrage. Already, efforts are underway to get a measure overturning the law on the November 2014 ballot.

Christy Horne, 64, of northwest Bakersfield, has two grandchildren in elementary school and supports the law's repeal.

"Elementary school children are at an age when they're just learning about modesty, privacy and boundaries," she said. "It's confusing enough learning their ABCs and 1-2-3s without having a boy coming into the girls' bathroom. It's going to be a distraction from the classroom."

Organizations on both sides of the debate are offering assistance to schools trying to navigate the logistics of implementation.

The Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute, which lobbies to protect religious freedom, is offering free legal advice to schools opposed to the law.

"What we're telling them is that they need to frame their policies in terms of constitutionally protected privacy rights, because it is a violation of privacy," said institute President Brad Dacus.

School boards should not simply throw up their hands and roll over, Dacus said. They should be "adopting qualifying language that will protect the rights of the 14-year-old girl who, with no warning, finds herself naked in a locker room with a 16-year-old boy," he said.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have laws that explicitly protect transgendered people, said Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"We have never experienced any adverse effects as a result of that," he said.

To critics who predict the law will encourage rather than curtail bullying, Silverman said, "Concerns about bullying and harassment of transgendered people are always valid.

"That said, we can't allow the threat of bullies to curtail the rights of transgendered children. That would spur the very same behavior we're trying to correct."

One of the murkier aspects of the new law is the mandate for access to sex-segregated sports and school activities.

The statute doesn't allow any child to barge onto an athletic field on a whim. Students and parents will need to contact a school administrator or athletic director ahead of time to get permission.

The CIF also has established a Gender Identity Eligibility Committee to hear appeals.

But there's no language in the law that defines a transgendered student as someone who has had surgery or is taking hormones. A male by birth who identifies as female could benefit from a natural competitive edge against female athletes.

"We're going into brand new territory here," said Jim Crichlow, commissioner of the CIF's central section, which includes Kern County. "These are things that are going to have to be worked out."

Identifying who is female and who is male in a youth sports context is not nearly as black and white as it might seem.

Transitioning from one gender to another is a process that can take months or years, depending on factors such as whether the person has passed puberty or not. How far along someone is in that process greatly affects strength and speed.

Even adult athletes can be difficult to sort out.

In 1976, the U.S. Tennis Association barred Renee Richards from competing in the women's U.S. Open after it came out that she had been born Richard Raskind. She sued and won, arguing in court that despite her 6-foot-2-inch frame, her surgery and hormone treatment had removed any advantage she'd had previously.

Then there's the tricky matter of how you define an "intersex," or person naturally born with both male and female characteristics.

The issue was famously examined in 2009, when South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya agreed to gender testing because competitors at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin had raised questions about her masculine appearance.

The testing reportedly revealed she had both male and female sexual traits, including higher testosterone levels than normal female athletes.

Semenya is said to have undergone medical treatment for the condition, and in 2010, the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF, cleared her to compete alongside other women.

Realistically, there isn't much athletic difference between the sexes prior to puberty so lower-level sports teams should not have many problems, said Dr. Eric Vilain, director of UCLA's Institute for Society and Genetics.

The problem is with biological males who start transitioning in high school and then try to compete in college or as professionals, he said.

"The late bloomers, those 12th graders, will have an athletic edge going into college or competing for a scholarship, so that's a complication," Vilain said.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association requires male-to-female transgendered athletes to have been transitioned for at least a year prior to competing. The IAAF requires that transgendered women wait two years after surgery to compete against women.

Bakersfield family doctor Michelle Quiogue said she applauds the courage it takes for transgendered children to play sports, where they'll certainly be scrutinized and possibly ridiculed.

"It's very rare that someone has the self confidence and emotional stamina to do that," she said. "To me, being willing to put themselves out there, that's a sign of healing."

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