Transgender students ‘just looking for their place in the world’
L.A. Times columnist Robin Abcarian chats with Ann Simmons about California’s new law requiring school districts to accommodate transgender students.
Transgender activist Eli Erlick, 18, was on the phone from her home in the small Mendocino County town of Willits and I could not resist asking her to respond to something uttered recently on the radio by James Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.
“God made us male and female,” said Dobson, expressing distaste for California’s groundbreaking new law that requires schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and play on the sports teams of the gender they identify with. “You just don’t choose gender.”
To my surprise, Erlick, a Pitzer College freshman, did not disagree.
“Yes, you don’t choose gender,” she said. “Why would someone choose? It’s not a choice.”
Erlick, who was born a boy, told me that she realized at age 8 that she was a girl. She didn’t choose to be a girl, she said. She was a girl.
The next six years were not a blissful time in Erlick’s life. Her parents were wigged out, she said, and she was isolated in her rural community. In elementary school, when she used the private teachers’ bathroom, kids made fun of her. In middle school, there was no private bathroom.
“I could not use the restroom for six years,” Erlick said. “I had to go home to pee. I had to pretend to be sick.”
The discomfort of a transgender student is low on the list of concerns for many conservative Christians, who, like Dobson, are appalled by the School Success and Opportunity Act, which was introduced by San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and became law on Jan. 1.
“It seems to me it would be a cruel joke to tell a gender-confused child who is being bullied that the solution to his problems is to go use the girls’ bathrooms,” said Frank Schubert, who is leading a campaign to repeal the law. “That would result in increased bullying, not less.”
I asked Erlick to respond.
“First of all,” she said, “We are not confused. We know who we are. Being able to participate with your own gender makes life a lot easier — and this is coming from a kid who was not able to for years. There is so much misinformation out there. It’s sad to see anyone believing those lies.”
Schubert, a political operative, helped orchestrate Proposition 8, which briefly outlawed gay marriage in California. Supported by the Pacific Justice Institute and other well-known gay marriage opponents, he is running a new group, Privacy for All Students, which gathered more than 600,000 signatures, mostly from evangelical Christian churches. About 505,000 signatures must be valid for the measure to qualify for the November ballot. Results will be known by early February.
What you often hear from people horrified by the new law is that forcing “normal” students to share a bathroom with a transgender peer amounts to a kind of “reverse-bullying.”
“Forcing boys and girls to share a bathroom doesn’t decrease bullying, it is bullying,” Pacific Justice Institute member Tim LeFever said on Dobson’s radio show in November.
School districts in Los Angeles and San Francisco, which have had transgender-friendly policies for years, have not reported problems.
But Gina Gleason, director of faith and public policy at the Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills, told me she doesn’t live in Los Angeles or San Francisco, and she doesn’t know about that. Her church has worked hard to gather signatures to overturn the law.
“Our heart goes out to any student that doesn’t identify as their natural-born gender,” she said, but she’s worried about students who do not wish to share restrooms or locker rooms with transgender students.
“I remember being in junior high or high school,” Gleason said. “Having someone of the opposite sex coming into the locker room, the shower or the bathroom is an uncomfortable thought. We don’t believe that children at that age should be forced into those situations.”
“A transgender girl is a girl,” Erlick said. “We don’t live in the ‘60s anymore. People are not undressing in locker rooms. What trans kid wants to expose themselves to other people? That’s ridiculous.”
From my perch, the fight for gay rights has essentially been won. Same-sex marriage is legal in 17 states and it’s probably just a matter of time before it is legal in all 50. Millions of Rose Parade viewers saw two men tie the knot atop a float on New Year’s Day and the sky did not fall.
So why is anyone worried that extending legal protection to vulnerable transgender minors spells the doom of civilization? Schubert, for example, told me he believes the law is “damaging to society,” and attempts “to strip society of all gender norms and all gender differences.”
John O’Connor, executive director of the pro-LGBT rights group Equality California, thinks we are seeing a new battle front in an old war.
“The people who existed for years to attack the LGBT community were really focused on marriage,” he said. “I think they recognized that they lost, or are losing, and have identified transgender students as their new punching bag.” (The Pacific Justice Institute did nothing to refute that idea when it launched a campaign against a Colorado teenager, claiming her presence in the girls’ bathroom at her school constituted “harassment.” The school vigorously denied it.)
“Until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes, no one can know what it’s like,” said O’Connor. “Like everyone, they’re just looking for their place in the world.”
Folks are just going to have to accept that sometimes that place is a schoolyard, sometimes it’s a bathroom, and sometimes it’s a sports team.
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