by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Transgender people may seem “all the rage” today after Caitlyn (nèe Bruce) Jenner’s media blitz on ABC and her stunning Annie Leibovitz cover photo on Vanity Fair, but they and their issues are old news to veteran Trans activists like Connor Maddocks. Maddocks, coordinator of Transgender services at the San Diego LGBT Community Center, spoke to the predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality in Hillcrest May 28 and talked about how far Trans people have come in their struggle for equality — but also how far they still have to go, especially in making sure landmark laws like AB 1266, a bill to protect Transgender public-school students passed in 2013 by the California legislature, actually get implemented.
“When I first transitioned in 2003, there was very little [legislation] on the books in California for the Transgender community — yet California was still ahead of most states,” Maddocks recalled. “We had in place a process to change our names and gender markers on our drivers’ licenses. Most states wouldn’t do that 10 to 12 years ago. Then there was kind of a lull in which not much happened, until the Transgender community started to join together. With the Internet, people became more outspoken and less afraid to be ‘out’ as Trans. Our community built enough momentum to become our own powerful little force all across America.”
One issue Maddocks remembered that kept a lot of Trans people in the closet was the legal requirement that in order to have your name changed legally — which you needed to do to have other documents like birth certificates and drivers’ licenses altered to reflect your correct gender identity — you had to have your name and address published in a newspaper. That, he explained discouraged a lot of Trans people from having their legal ID’s changed — which meant they could be harassed or even arrested if they were stopped and their ID’s didn’t match the names they were using or the gender they were presenting. Maddocks said the Trans community’s first legislative priority when he became active in it was to have the law changed so you could do a legal name change without having to “out” yourself in public print.
“The next big one was AB 1266, which means all public-school students can go to school and be themselves,” Maddocks said. “If they identify as male, they can use the men’s room, use the male locker room and join the male sports teams.” It was the prospect of Trans-identifed students using the “wrong” restrooms that particularly incensed opponents, including many of the same radical religious-Right groups that had put Proposition 8 on the ballot in 2008 to ban same-sex marriage in California. “They tried to get it on the ballot and repeal it” with a referendum, Maddocks said. But they fell short of the number of petition signatures required, and the Trans community and its allies heaved a collective sigh of relief.
But, as Maddocks told the Democrats for Equality, just having AB 1266 on the books doesn’t necessarily mean it’s being enforced. The law left it up to each local school district to pass policies to implement the new law — and, Maddocks said, San Diego is lagging behind Los Angeles in putting the policies in place to make sure Trans students actually benefit from the law. “The San Diego Unified School District is dragging their feet,” Maddocks said. “Our kids are being bullied and harassed by teachers. I have got letters from kids who said their teachers have mis-gendered them on purpose and stood by while other kids bullied them.” Maddocks said the district has had a “Safer Schools Task Force” in place for four years, but “I don’t know what they’re doing.”
Despite the advances — at least on paper — in securing protection for Transgender people, Maddocks said the community continues to lose people to bullying and hatred. “We lost a Transgender teen to suicide three weeks ago, and part of it was being bullied online,” he explained. “We can’t let our kids continue to be bullied. Passing a law is not enough; we need to see policies implemented at every grade level. It comes down to the individual districts. The state passed the law but there wasn’t a timeline on how soon they had to pass these policies.” According to Maddocks, the California School Boards Association adopted a model policy in February 2014, available online at http://www.supportallstudents.org/new_model_policy, which any school board in the state could adopt — but many districts are dragging their feet.
Veteran San Diego Queer attorney and activist Rob DeKoven called for legislation to make it illegal for teachers to bully students. He said State Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach) has actually introduced a bill to do that, but it’s been blocked by the California Teachers’ Association, which doesn’t want to set a precedent that teachers can be punished legally for anything they say or do on campus. According to DeKoven, a number of legislators who would ordinarily support a law to protect the Queer or Trans communities have backed away from Lara’s bill because they don’t want to go against organized labor. Another audience member asked Maddocks why it was so difficult to get a policy out of the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) when all five board members are Democrats and the board president, Kevin Beiser, is Gay.
“It’s not like nothing has been done at SDUSD, but there are many schools that still have far to go,” Maddocks explained. He conceded it’s even worse at other districts — including Fallbrook, where a Transgender student committed suicide and a delegation of students went to the school principal and said he hadn’t done enough to stop the bullying.
Former San Diego County Democratic Party chair and San Diego Democrats for Equality president Jess Durfee warned that there still could be a campaign to overturn AB 1266 at the ballot box. He said the reason it failed before was “they tried to put it on the next ballot after the 2012 Presidential election and they needed 505,000 valid signatures.” Since the number of signatures required is based on a percentage of the vote in the last general election, Durfee said, “now it’s only 350,000” after the low-turnout November 2014 election. “The bar is much lower, they’ve got the names from last time, and they’ll probably get the number of signatures they need to put it on the ballot in 2016.”
“SDUSD does have policies in place to protect Transgender students,” said Susan Guinn, who ran unsuccessfully for county clerk/recorder in 2014 and was elected the club’s vice-president for political action at the meeting where Maddocks spoke. “They’re the first district in the county to take the Athlete Ally Pledge,” available at https://www.athleteally.org/action/athlete-ally-pledge/, which requires its signers “to respect and welcome all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
According to Guinn, Torrey Pines High School was “notorious for bullying” when its Gay-Straight Alliance “created a ‘Rainbow Week’” and brought out Athlete Ally founder and executive director Hudson Taylor to speak on campus. “SDUSD is responsive and wants to work on these issues.”
But Rob DeKoven pointed out that there are limits to what even the best-intentioned school district can do to teachers and athletic coaches who either ignore or openly defy the law. “The teachers and coaches who are doing this are tenured,” he explained. “If we push the principals, they’ll say we’re attacking their free speech.” DeKoven also said the solution to the bathroom issue is to make all school restrooms gender-neutral — an idea that drew shocked gasps from many people in the audience, especially women, who thought it was going too far.
“They’re doing [gender-neutral restrooms] in Europe, and having great success,” Maddocks said. “Our bathroom issues are really big. There’s a group trying to pass a bathroom bill in California that people would have to use the bathroom for the gender on their birth certificate, and if they find a Transgender person using the ‘wrong’ bathroom in a state-owned building, there will be a minimum $4,000 fine. It’s a crazy law, but crazy laws sometimes pass. It’s something to keep on the radar. There are some very butch women in the Lesbian community that are often mistaken for male, and they’ve been hassled when they’ve used the women’s room.”
Asked by DeKoven where students can go to complain when they’re being bullied for being Transgender, Maddocks said, “My parents and I are compiling a list of really good schools, including some charters. Hi-Tech High [in San Diego and Chula Vista] is doing great things for our community. There was a kid who was being bullied in sixth grade, and eight days later I and a group were giving them a hug.”