School officials and advocates don’t expect the Obama administration’s directive that public schools allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity will have much of an impact in California, where a law previously was approved, giving students that access.
“We’re ahead of the curve in California,” said Jason Lea, the Santa Rosa school district’s assistant superintendent for human resources.
“(They’ve) already been in place,” he said about the guidelines outlined by the feds.
In 2013, California became the first state to allow transgender students in kindergarten to 12th grade to pick the bathroom, locker room and sports team of their choice, regardless of their sex assigned at birth. While there was pushback from parents and conservative and religious groups around the state, Lea said he doesn’t recall there was much resistance when the district implemented those policies.
Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, A.B. 1266 protected students’ rights to participate in sex-segregated sports and activities and use sex-segregated facilities that best matched their identities. “California is one of the few states that has done this,” said Jacqueline Nugent, a counselor for Positive Images, a nonprofit lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender support group based in Santa Rosa.
She leads three transgender support groups at the nonprofit — one for parents of transgender people, one for male-to-female transgender people, and one for transgender youths and people questioning their gender.
Nugent said some schools have gone farther to protect the rights of students. For example, she said, Santa Rosa High School and Sonoma State University are among schools that allow students to include their preferred name on school records.
“In their classroom roll, they can be called their preferred name rather than their legal name,” Nugent said. Efforts are underway to expand that option at other schools and colleges across the county.
Lea said many schools in his district already do that. “We serve all kinds of kids in public schools and we should be doing as much as we can to make their experience positive,” he said.
Campuses across the county also have been pushing to add more gender-neutral bathrooms.
Santa Rosa Junior College has set a goal to provide gender-inclusive bathrooms in at least half of its academic and administrative buildings, said Ellen Maremont Silver, the director of communication and marketing. So far, she said there are gender-inclusive restrooms in five buildings on the Santa Rosa campus and one in Petaluma. The school is in the process of adding a second one at that campus, although there are more to come system wide, she said.
The junior college also allows students to be called by their preferred name, Silver said.
Lillian Finley, a sophomore and member of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Petaluma High School, said she and classmates are trying to raise money to convert of one of the bathrooms on campus into a gender-neutral facility. While her campus is for the most part inclusive, Finley said some of her friends who identify themselves as transgender often avoid the bathrooms because they’re afraid they might be bullied.
“They just don’t use the restroom,” said Finley, who hoped the Obama administration’s directive would start to change national discussions on gender identity.
Nugent also welcomed the guidance, saying it provides much needed support for the transgender community, which is disproportionately affected by depression and risk of suicide, Nugent said.
“Trans identities have such shame around them that depression and suicidal thoughts are very common in youth and adults,” she said. “This is the kind of support they desperately need.”
The federal Education and Justice departments issued a joint letter Friday describing what needs to be done to protect students’ rights — a move applauded by California’s schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson.
Officials said in the statement that schools receiving federal dollars cannot discriminate based on a student’s sex under Title IX, the anti-discrimination law that requires schools to protect students from sexual violence and harassment. They argue gender identity falls under a student’s sex.
“This guidance further clarifies what we’ve said repeatedly — that gender identity is protected under Title IX,” United States Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said in the statement.
“Educators want to do the right thing for students, and many have reached out to us for guidance on how to follow the law. We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence.”
Andrew Cochrane, a teacher of U.S. history and sociology at Petaluma High, said all students deserve to feel comfortable at school.
“Public schools are the starting point in the game of life,” said Cochrane, who also serves as the adviser of the Gay-Straight Alliance on campus. “With comfort comes that opportunity to maximize their potential. And we all benefit from it.”
The Obama administration sent out a powerful message to transgender youth around the country with the directive, added Warren Davis, a student at SRJC.
“While not a law per se, a commander-in-chief is telling people he approves of us. He’s on our side,” said Davis, 25.
He said SRJC has made strides to make it a more inclusive campus. Davis said he felt comfortable using the men’s locker room on campus, although it initially took courage to approach the instructor about it.
“You never know how people are going to react, especially older professors,” Davis said.
While he feels comfortable at the college, Davis said there’s much work to be done. For starters, he said the college needs to convert all its bathrooms into all-gender facilities. “We all have them at home,” he said.
Javier Rivera, director of programs and outreach at Positive Images, said the main issue isn’t bathrooms but rather a lack of understanding on what it means to be a transgender person. The public doesn’t understand the gender spectrum and its complexity and variety, he said.
While the federal guidance won’t have as strong of an impact as if it were made a law, Rivera said it’s forcing a national discussion on gender identity.
“It’s definitely sparked a conversation,” Rivera said. “I hope it continues because there are a lot of youth struggling with their identity because of the social constructs that we have been living with for a long time — of what it means to be ‘normal.’ ”