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Religious right targets transgender people’s use of public bathrooms

The right-wing leaders behind the campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California now want to repeal legislation intended to protect the rights of transgender students to equal access to school facilities, such as bathrooms, and school programs, such as sports teams.

They’ve made repeated claims that boys will game the system and pretend to be transgender so they can invade girls’ restrooms. They’ve dubbed the historic legislation that Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law as the “bathroom bill,” making light of a basic human need and ignoring the consequences of continued discrimination behind the doors labeled for him or her.

“I think just about anybody knows what it feels like to desperately need to use a bathroom,” said transgender civil rights advocate Nancy McCormick of San Diego. “Now imagine living your whole life being afraid to use a public bathroom because you don’t want to be assaulted or arrested or being barred from using a public bathroom because someone says it isn’t for you.”

Jody L. Herman, a researcher with the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, has studied transgender people’s experiences with gendered restrooms and found:

• 27 percent of the transgender people surveyed in Washington, D.C., experienced problems using restrooms at work. In some cases, the harassment was so severe that the person changed jobs.

• 54 percent of the transgender people surveyed experienced physical complications — dehydration, kidney infections, urinary tract infections — from trying to avoid public restrooms.

• 58 percent of the transgender people surveyed said they avoided going out due to a lack of safe public restroom facilities.

• 68 percent said they’d been verbally harassed while using a public restroom.

• 9 percent reported being physically assaulted while trying to use a public restroom.

Herman concluded, “Policies to protect transgender people’s access to restrooms can be understood as policies that are connected to the health and well-being of transgender people.” 

From anti-gay to anti-trans

The Privacy For All Students coalition wants a referendum next year on the California legislation that guarantees K-12 students access to sex-segregated restrooms and other facilities, as well as programs and activities based on self-identification of gender instead of birth gender or transition status.

The name of the coalition is new, but the alliance of the members is not: Many of the same organizations, activists and strategists were behind Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman and barred same-sex couples from marrying in California. 

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer led to the overturning of Prop 8 and left the Prop 8 defenders in search of a new cause to rally the far-right and raise cash. The National Organization for Marriage, for one, turned its focus to fighting marriage equality abroad. But NOM also committed to battling efforts to protect transgender Americans and safeguard their rights.

The most prominent battle is taking place in California, where NOM is working with the Capital Resource Institute and others in the Privacy For All Students coalition to repeal the School Success and Opportunity Act or AB 1266, set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

On Nov. 8, the coalition filed petitions signed by voters who want a ballot initiative.

If the measure is certified, a veteran of the anti-gay marriage campaign, Frank Schubert, has been tapped to lead the repeal effort.

In October, repeal advocates rallied outside the headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has had a policy similar to AB 1226 for a decade and reported no problems.

Repeal advocates also have rallied in rural northern parts of the state, including in Modoc and Siskiyou counties, where elected officials disenchanted with state politics have called for seceding from California and forming the new State of Jefferson. Their largely symbolic effort is over economics and agricultural regulations, but some, in challenging government’s reach, have cited AB 1226 as an example of the state going too far. 

John O’Connor of Equality California, a statewide LGBT group, said opposition to AB 1266 is “a predictable move by fringe groups that oppose all pro-equality measures.”

Broad support

Other supporters of the legislation include gay lawmakers Tom Ammiano and Mark Leno of San Francisco, the ACLU of California, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, the Transgender Law Center and also statewide parent and teacher organizations, including the California Teachers Association and the California State PTA.

The CTA said it supports the law because “educators see, firsthand, the often humiliating experiences transgender students endure. Transgender students who are denied access to a restroom appropriate to their gender identity often report they avoid using school restrooms at all, which not only places students’ health at risk, but also significantly interferes with the their ability to learn.”

Before Brown signed AB 1226, a transgender student in California filed a complaint with the civil rights divisions of the U.S. Education and Justice departments. The student alleged that Arcadia Unified School District violated his rights by excluding him from using the boys’ restroom and locker room and segregating him from his male peers on an overnight field trip. The complaint said the school rules caused the boy to be subjected to ridicule and to be excluded from afterschool activities.

The federal government, announcing a resolution of the complaint in July, said the district would revise its policies to ensure all students equal access and opportunity.

The student, who has remained unnamed throughout the legal process, said, “(Now) I can focus on learning and being a typical high school student, like my friends.”

The student’s attorney, Asaf Orr at the NCLR, added, “Hopefully school districts will take this opportunity to proactively address the needs of transgender youth through districtwide policies and training.”

Massachusetts and Colorado have statewide policies that offer protections similar to AB 1226, and Maine’s human rights commission has ruled that state law requires schools to respect a student’s gender identity. Communities and school districts across the country, including in Wisconsin, also have improved policies. 

In some of those locations, right-wing groups are challenging the reforms.

In Colorado, for example, three high school girls represented by the right-wing Pacific Justice Institute are alleging harassment because a transgender student is using the girl’s bathroom. PJI attorney Matthew McReynolds says allowing a “biologically teenage boy” in a girl’s bathroom “is inherently harassing.”

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Family Action, the organization that is challenging the state’s domestic partnership registry, is sounding alarms. In an “alert” to members in late October, WFA president Julaine Appling said being transgender is a perversion and warned, “It’s ‘gender identity and expression’ that has been at the forefront of the so-called ‘bathroom laws’ that have become more and more popular. These are the laws that say public bathrooms are to be re-identified as unisex rather than be what they have been since time immemorial — sex specific and sex exclusive.”

Appling said it is time to “stop making it illegal for people to say ‘no’ to those who are quite honestly perverting the image of God that has been stamped on each human being.”

McCormick said fringe groups such as Wisconsin Family Action distort the facts and ignore the need for protections. “The problem is not with how God did or did not stamp us — which is for each and every one of us to know individually not for Wisconsin Family Action to decide,” she said. “The problem is with those symbols stamped on bathroom doors and rigid rules about gender and segregation.”

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