This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.
Is the Great Transgender Bathroom & Sports Team Scare of 2013 on the verge of petering out?
Last August, Gov. Jerry Brown set off a right-wing frenzy when he signed into law an anti-discrimination bill that seemed pretty straightforward: Transgender public school students in California should be able to use the sex-segregated bathrooms and play on the sex-segregated sports teams of the gender with which they identify, not the gender listed on their school records.
"The School Success and Opportunity Act," the first of its kind in the nation, did not sit well with California's waning conservative Christian base, which has lately been in danger of becoming the political equivalent of the polar bear stranded on the ice floe.
As soon as Brown signed the bill, AB 1266, which is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, the right sprang back with Privacy for All Students, a coalition aimed at overturning the law, which they have dubbed the "Co-ed Bathroom Bill."
In the words of Focus on the Family's James Dobson, in a radio segment about the law, "God made us male and female. You just don't choose gender."
(True enough; hard to imagine a kid choosing to be transgender.)
Over 90 days, using volunteer and paid signature gatherers, Privacy for All Students amassed about 620,000 signatures, 400,000 of them directly from churches, according to political consultant Frank Schubert, the Prop. 8 campaign brain who is handling this effort. Schubert is also the political director of the National Organization for Marriage, or NOM, which is also backing the effort.
Though the results won't be known until early next month, and possibly later, supporters on both sides have have been biting their nails, frequently checking the California Secretary of State's website for updates about whether enough valid signatures have been collected to get the referendum before voters.
About 505,000 of them — or a little over 80% — must be deemed valid. So far, the rate is hovering at about 76%.
But Schubert doesn't plan to give up without a fight. "I'm not predicting anything at this point," he told me. "We are going to fight for every signature."
Major contributors to his effort include the Pacific Justice Institute, the Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills and the Irvine-based Fieldstead & Co. But by far and away, the largest single contributor is Sean Fieler, a Princeton, N.J.-based hedge fund executive and major contributor to anti-gay marriage efforts, who has provided $200,000 of the nearly $500,000 raised by the group.
If the referendum does manage to qualify for the ballot, it will serve a dual purpose: challenging a law that many religious conservatives find odious, and lighting a fire under dispirited California Republicans who might be tempted to stay home next November.
California's religious conservatives have had a hard go of it lately — they were stung after their successful effort to outlaw gay marriage via Prop. 8 crumbled in the courts. They have to contend with a a Democratic supermajority in the Legislature. And now, adding insult to their injury, California has codified the notion that gender is not an immutable fact of biology.
"All of this is damaging to society," Schubert said. "They are using those children to advance an agenda to strip society of all gender norms and to move down a path where men and women are considered to be interchangeable, where gender is an irrelevant fact, something that's fungible and flexible."
I turned to John O'Connor, executive director of Equality California, the LGBT civil rights group, and demanded to know whether he is working to damage society by stripping out all gender norms.
"No," he replied dryly.
That's what I figured. My guess is we'll have a genderless society right after we have a color-blind society, i.e. never.
In any case, O'Connor said, "They need a bogeyman. Like gay marriage — 'It's going to ruin traditional marriage and be the downfall of society.' Just switch out the words. 'Full inclusion of transgender people is going to ruin gender normality for everyone.' It's fear mongering."
Among the fears: That boys pretending to be girls will dominate female sports teams. That boys will be able to sneak peeks of girls in school bathrooms.
Judy Chiasson, coordinator of the LAUSD's Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity, says such things simply do not happen. The L.A. district has had a policy similar to the state law for years, she said.
"Since 2005, I have not had a single instance of somebody pretending to be transgender so they could have, during fifth period only, access to a restroom," Chiasson said. "We have had such positive experiences. We really have."
Regardless of how you feel, you have to admire the creativity, or perhaps disingenuousness, of the arguments being marshalled by those who oppose the law.
Take the issue of bullying, a major concern for transgender and gay students: "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' bathroom," Schubert said. "That would result in more bullying, not less."
Other conservatives have argued that helping transgender students navigate our sex-segregated world would somehow diminish the rights of "normal" kids.
"If the law stands, you can expect that children who balk at welcoming an opposite-sex child into the locker room or bathroom will be reprimanded and singled out for being hurtful and transgender-phobic," wrote columnist Rebecca Hagelin on the website Townhall. "The normal kids will be 'the problem.'"
If the referendum does not qualify for the ballot this time around, Schubert told me, his group will consider launching an initiative campaign.
But activists like O'Connor think it's too late: "We've been through Prop. 8, which the state celebrated when it went down. We don't want to do this again. This is simply at odds with what California stands for."
I think O'Connor is right. In California, the battle over LGBT civil rights is basically over.
Some folks just haven't figured that out yet.
[For the record, 5:35 p.m. Dec. 10]An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the LAUSD's Office of Human Relationships, Diversity and Equity. It is the LAUSD's Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity.]