Skyler Clarke today proudly lives as a male, but that wasn’t always the case.
Considered the typical “tomboy” during childhood, Clarke, who was born female, enjoyed sports and played on the varsity girls softball team at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach. By the age of 16, however, he began looking into transgender issues, something Clarke didn’t feel comfortable talking about with his peers, especially the girls on the team, he said.
“I was still sort of coming to terms with this idea that I maybe was just not a straight woman, but even that, which has become much more widely accepted nowadays, was something I didn’t share with my teammates,” said Clarke, who is now 19.
It wasn’t until after graduating last year that he decided to make the full physical transition, starting with taking male hormones.
California is the first state in the country to pass a law requiring that all K-12th-grade schools that receive state funding protect the rights of transgender students by allowing children access to bathrooms, locker rooms and sex-segregated sports activities and programs based on their gender identity rather than their sex at birth. The unprecedented law is intended to clarify existing state legislation that bans discrimination against transgender students in public schools.
AB 1266, also known as the School Success and Opportunity Act, was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last month and goes into effect Jan. 1, 2014. The bill was authored by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) and co-authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens).
According to a statement from Ammiano’s office, the new law would “help avoid future complaints and lawsuits.” In one recent case, a transgender student, who was born a female but now identifies as male, at an Arcadia high school filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education after being forced to use a bathroom in the nurse’s office. The school district has since reached a settlement by agreeing to treat all students equally.
The statewide law is seen by its supporters as a “victory” for rights of transgender people and the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community.
“We were incredibly thrilled when that legislation was signed,” said Porter Gilberg, administrative director of The Center Long Beach, a longtime LGBTQ community organization and advocacy group. “Transgender students face an almost insurmountable amount of harassment and discrimination in public schools. So any law that we can get on the books to increase access and equality for our transgender and gender-nonconforming students is a victory.”
At the same time, an effort to repeal AB 1266 through a petition to get a measure on the ballot for the November 2014 election has recently surfaced since the law’s passage. The campaign nearly mirrors the initiative known as Proposition 8, which tried to ban gay marriage in California yet was shot down by a federal court decision in June.
Criticisms against AB 1266 have come from some parents, worried that it may create safety risks for their children. The Capitol Resource Institute, a Sacramento-based political group that says its mission is to “educate and strengthen families” through influencing public policy, argues that the law takes away privacy rights of students, puts children at risk and limits the authority of local school districts.
“Current law dealt with this sensitive issue on a case-by-case basis,” said Karen England, executive director of the institute, in a statement. “But this bill was never about helping a few children that experience gender dysphoria– it is about furthering the radical lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender agenda by utilizing the public school system to force acceptance of the lifestyle on our children.”
England adds that the new law does not provide safety measures to prevent abuses of the policy and will result in school districts being sued by parents form both sides. Others have said the law may create a form of “reverse discrimination” in school sports and may allow some students to exploit the situation, particularly with regard to boys in girls’ restrooms and changing facilities.
Gilberg, however, says the concerns come from a lack of understanding and first-hand knowledge of transgender and gender-nonconforming students. In terms of school safety, surveys by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network indicate that harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity is still “through the roof” for many students in the United States, he said.
“The transgender community is an incredibly marginalized community even within the LGBTQ community,” Gilberg said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of that information is made more clear when people have the opportunity to get to know somebody who identifies as transgender or gender nonconforming.”
Clarke, who is now studying early-child education at Long Beach City College, agreed that hate-crime statistics show transgender individuals are “much more threatened” than they are “a threat.”
Looking back, Clarke said he feels somewhat lucky he made the transition after high school. “I was in locker rooms a lot because I was an athlete, but it wasn’t an issue because I didn’t start transitioning until after high school,” Clarke said. “I was very fortunate in that way, but it is something I know that many of my friends go through.”
Gilberg said the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) has been an “incredibly strong ally” to the LGBTQ community, adding that the district recently passed a comprehensive anti-bullying policy and works closely with The Center’s staff.
LBUSD spokesperson Chris Eftychiou said via email that the school district has accommodated the needs of transgender students by individual situations in previous years and school officials plan to follow the new law as well.
“In the past, we have worked with transgender students and their families on a case-by-case basis to provide the facilities of their choosing, including facilities used by the gender that these students identify with,” he said. “We have been able to accommodate transgender students successfully, and we will continue to do so under the new law.”
Los Angeles Unified School District and San Francisco Unified School District have allowed students to enter bathrooms and sports teams based on gender identity for years through their own policies.
Kyle Bullock, youth program manager at The Center who works with LBUSD administrators to assist LGBTQ youth, said the new law addresses some key points but there’s still “a lot of work” to be done on raising awareness of transgender issues in schools and in communities. In some cases, students who identify as transgender are still not fully accepted by their parents, he said.
“This definitely is a great start, but it only tackles a few things,” Bullock said. “There’s dress code, privacy, school documents, medical records, name and pronoun use. There’s a huge list… In all school districts, there needs to be training on this topic to increase sensitivity and understanding for this student population, first and foremost.”
Representatives of the Oakland-based Transgender Law Center indicate that the new law will make it easier for transgender students to stay in school and make sure they have access to healthy activities, such as sports, which are important for quality of life.
“We have heard from scores of parents concerned that their children are at risk for dropping out of school merely because they are transgender,” said Masen Davis, Transgender Law Center executive director, in a statement. “It breaks my heart to see our youth excluded from activities at school simply because of who they are.”
Clarke added that there appears to be a lack of education about transgender students mainly among teachers, since today’s students are more accepting of different sexual orientations and gender identities than generations in the past. He said the new law could go a long way to ensuring a safer school environment for transgender children.
“Children are coming out younger and younger as transgender nowadays,” Clarke said. “With increased openness and awareness, this is the first generation where we’re going to have young people coming up through the school system even as young as elementary school. This legislation really protects them from a dangerous situation.”
Public agencies and governments in California are also looking at protecting the rights of transgender individuals.
The Board of the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), for instance, voted in June to include transgender “transition-related” care, such as mental healthcare, hormones, and sex-confirming surgeries, in all of their health plans starting Jan. 1, 2014. The historic decision by the board follows a trend in the private sector for employers to offer “transgender-inclusive” healthcare benefits.
Though Long Beach received a perfect score of 100 percent on its Municipality Equality Index (MEI) from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Torey Carrick, a board member of HRC, noticed the City wasn’t offering these specific benefits for employees who may identify as transgender.
In an Aug. 2 memo, however, Long Beach Director of Human Resources Deborah Mills states that the City of Long Beach will soon offer its employees transgender-inclusive benefits through Anthem Blue Cross, the City’s healthcare provider.
The benefit will be offered through their HMO plan and will be implemented by Anthem when the State of California’s Department of Managed Care and the provider’s internal contracts division have added transgender benefits to their approved list of services and eliminate the exclusion of sex-change procedures from being covered.
Long Beach, which is the largest member of CalPERS, is on the “forefront” of adding transgender-inclusive benefits in its insurance policy with the help of Carrick, Vice Mayor Robert Garcia and city management, Gilberg said. However, he said this is the direction that most cities are now legally required to take in the State of California.
Gilberg said offering transgender-inclusive benefits not only makes it possible for employees to get coverage for their transition-related care but primary care as well.
He described a scenario in which a transgender man broke his leg and went to the emergency room, but after leaving the hospital, his provider denied him coverage based on the fact that he is transgender even though he had health insurance.
Gilberg added, “This goes way above and beyond transition-related care and says that, for a transgender person, your health insurance cannot exclude coverage to you simply because of who you are.”