Opponents of transgender student bill seek referendum

Opponents of a state bill that would allow transgender K-12 students access to school facilities and programs that match their gender identity have submitted a referendum in hopes of repealing the law.

Referred to by detractors as the “coed bathroom bill,” AB 1266 would codify certain rights for transgender students, such as the ability to join a sports team or use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender.

Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Aug. 12, the bill is scheduled to become law on Jan. 1, 2014. However, if the referendum is approved, the law’s enactment will be postponed until it can be put on the ballot in 2014.

Opposition groups include the California Republican Party as well as Privacy for All Students (PFAS), a coalition of conservative groups that have spearheaded the referendum effort. They fear that the bill is a violation of the privacy rights of students and a matter better left for school districts to deal with on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s a serious violation of privacy rights under the U.S. Constitution,” said Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), a legal defense organization that drafted the referendum.

“No person, including a 13-year-old girl, should be forced to change or undress in front of a 16-year-old boy who thinks he is a girl on the inside,” Dacus said.

PFAS has also enlisted the help of veteran political advisor Frank Schubert, president of Mission Public Affairs and a key leader in the 2008 Proposition 8 campaign. Schubert echoed this sentiment in an email.

“The bill is a gross invasion of privacy for California students in the most vulnerable areas of public schools, subjecting them to the opposite sex sharing showers, bathroom, changing areas and locker rooms on a claim of ‘gender identity,’” Schubert said. “It doesn’t even require that a student have ever presented himself as the opposite sex.”

Opponents also view AB 1266 as an unnecessary overstepping on the part of the state, with Dacus referring to the bill as a “one-size-fits-all piece of legislation,” and Schubert calling it “wide open for abuse as drafted.”

However, supporters of the bill find these claims to be overstated.

“For me, it seems like a bit of a made up scenario,” said Kim Westrick, the interim office coordinator for the UC Davis LGBTQIA Resource Center. “It’s the kind of thing that comes from imagining trans folks as predators. They aren’t considering the kind of oppression trans people face.”

Geoff Kors, senior legislative and policy strategist for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), a cosponsor of the bill, called the sorts of hypotheticals popularized by PFAS a “total fallacy” and a result of “scare tactics and fear mongering” from the bill’s opponents.

“It’s a mean spirited attack on some of our most vulnerable young people,” Kors said.

Other supporters of the bill, such as the ACLU of Northern California and Gay Straight Alliance, have joined with the NCLR in opposing the referendum, saying that the bill is an important step in eliminating barriers to participation for students who question their assigned gender.

Mark Snyder, communications manager for Transgender Law Center, another support group, cited the success of school districts within California that have already adopted the policies AB 1266 is based on.

“LA Unified School District has had these sorts of policies in place for almost a decade without any of these sorts of violations happening,” Snyder said.

Groups at UC Davis have also rallied behind similar policies, with the UC Student Workers Union sponsoring a petition to create more gender neutral restrooms on UC campuses like those found at the new Student Community Center.

While existing California law already prohibits schools from discriminating against students based on their gender identity, if passed AB 1266 would be the first of its kind in the U.S. to specifically enumerate some of the rights of transgender students.

“The law simply restates existing state and federal law, regardless of the referendum,” Snyder said. “The repeal would not take away existing protections.”

According to Kors, “in the unlikely event that the referendum would qualify and pass, it would have little effect.”

In order to qualify for the 2014 ballot, the referendum must garner around 505,000 signatures, or an amount equivalent to five percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

According to the CA Secretary of State’s office, opponents of AB 1266 submitted 614,311 signatures, about 18 percent over the required minimum. Around 400,000 of these were collected by volunteers, with the rest being provided by signature gatherers paid for by PFAS.

Extra signatures are needed in petition drives as many are often invalidated for being duplicates, belonging to unregistered voters or representing false information such as names or addresses.

Initial counts of the signature validity rate looked grim, with a random sample released on Dec. 2 finding only about 76.6 percent as legitimate. With the surplus of signatures collected, the petition would need to hit at least 82 percent validity to qualify.

Supporters of the referendum have developed a few contingencies to stop the law in the event that AB 1266 passes regardless of the referendum, with the PJI exploring options for a legal challenge to the law.

The fate of the referendum will be decided when a definitive valid signature count is released on Jan. 8, 2014.