Being Part of the Team: Equal Access for Transgender Students

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August 12, 2013

In California, the School Success and Opportunity Act aims to ensure equal access to gender-segregated activities and facilities for transgender students. Lambda Legal urges Gov. Brown to sign it.

A bill sitting for the past month on the desk of California Gov. Jerry Brown spotlights a persistent problem for transgender students in the Golden State.

AB 1266, the School Success and Opportunity Act, aims to ensure equal access to gender-segregated activities and facilities for transgender students. It was authored by Assembly Member Tom Ammiano and received overwhelmingly supportive votes by both houses of the California Legislature.

Some might think this bill isn’t needed. Since 1999, California’s Education Code has forbidden discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation in both public and private schools. Those explicit protections built on the promise of equal treatment that the California Constitution already made to students in the state’s public schools. And yet, our Legal Help Desk in Los Angeles has continued to receive calls from students and parents reporting that school officials are refusing to provide transgender students with access to sex-segregated facilities, activities, physical education classes and sports teams consistently with their gender identity.

Being singled out and treated differently from one’s peers damages the psychological, social and academic development of any student. Transgender students often suffer this even more intensely. Exclusion and other forms of discrimination harm the student’s sense of self, wellbeing and overall potential. Physical education classes and team sports are, by design, meant to boost these very things. But exclusion from locker rooms and assignment to a team inappropriate for a student’s gender identity can make participation impossible. And when students are excluded from physical education classes, they not only miss out on immediate and potentially long-term health benefits, they sometimes also are denied credits they need to graduate.

Why is this happening and what can make it stop?

Although California law prohibits gender identity discrimination in the state’s schools, some school administrators apparently misunderstand what is required. They fail to see that it is precisely when school activities or facilities segregate students by gender that nondiscrimination means allowing each student to participate according to their gender identity. Other school officials may be mistreating transgender students out of fear that other students’ parents will object to gender-appropriate inclusion.

Lambda Legal has urged Governor Brown to eliminate the apparent confusion by signing AB 1266 into law. We have explained that this bill will confirm for the state as a whole the approach taken by the Los Angeles Unified School District, the San Francisco Unified School District and others that have been providing appropriate access to sex-segregated facilities and activities without incident for nearly a decade. The bill also is consistent with the California Interscholastic Federation’s policy and has been endorsed by the California Teachers’ Association, the California Federation of Teachers and the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board.

If Governor Brown signs AB 1266, California will follow in the footsteps of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Washington, each of which has adopted policies to ensure equal access for transgender students. Colorado’s Civil Rights Division reached a similar conclusion this past June following a complaint filed on behalf of a six-year-old transgender girl who had been required to use a nurse’s restroom rather than the girl’s restroom in her elementary school. The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund successfully argued that the school had violated Colorado law by singling out this student and treating her differently from other girls. The Civil Rights Division concluded that the school had treated her in a manner that was “hostile, intimidating” and “offensive.”

Federal civil rights watchdogs also have turned critical eyes to this issue. The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education recently teamed up to investigate allegations of mistreatment of a 12-year-old transgender boy who had been singled out by his Arcadia, Calif., school and forced to use a nurse’s restroom and to bunk alone, away from the other boys in his class, during a school field trip. The case initially had been brought by the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The settlement reached by the federal agencies confirms that the federal laws protecting students against sex discrimination—Title VI and Title IX—cover transgender students in all aspects of education, including gender-appropriate use of sex-segregated facilities and participation in extra-curricular activities. Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, put the point clearly and emphatically: “All students, including transgender students, have the right to attend school free from discrimination based on their sex.”

Protections against sex discrimination exist in many places in state law and at the federal level.

Case settlements, voluntary education policies and explicit bills like AB 1266 all can serve to reinforce that these protections exist for transgender students, too. Like everyone, transgender students need safety, inclusion and full equality at school. This means respecting each student’s gender identity in all aspects of education, including use of restrooms and locker rooms, access to activities, and participation in sports. It means that transgender students can take their minds off of being transgender and focus on what matters: learning, achieving and succeeding in school.


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