Can California be a shelter for trans people? Legislators hope so

As Assemblywoman Lori Wilson recalls the environment her son faced coming out as transgender in high school, she said she’s especially grateful for one thing: that he came out eight years ago, not in today’s toxic climate.

Wilson, the first California lawmaker with a transgender child, said her son Kiren’s transition in 2016 was an empowering moment in her life. The early adoption of trans-inclusive policies in California allowed Kiren to transition in school on her own terms, as she gradually took on a more masculine appearance, pronouns, and her chosen name.

But when Wilson looks at the situation for transgender youth today, he is much more afraid. The rosy moment of progress LGBTQ people experienced when Kiren came out has evaporated to the point that even deeply blue states like California are now on the defensive.

“It is very sad for me. It’s 2023, this is so old-fashioned,” said Wilson, a Democrat from Suisun City, a small suburb of Solano County. “They were making progress, and now it’s going backwards. Now, they have to fight again.”

That fight has reached the California Capitol as legislators, advocates and parents of LGBTQ youth push back against a wave of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation, much of it specifically targeting transgender people, that has swept across the country. , coinciding with an increase in violent hate crimes and speech.

They want to reinforce California’s status as a safe haven in times of erosion of the community’s civil rights. While the Golden State has long been a trailblazer for LGBTQ rights, lawmakers have proposed an even stronger slate of pro-trans bills this year.

California Assemblywoman Lori Wilson is pictured with her son, Kiren "Ki" Wilson, in 2018, when she was elected mayor of Suisun City.  Kiren Wilson came out as transgender in high school.
California Assemblywoman Lori Wilson is pictured with her son, Kiren “Ki” Wilson, in 2018 when she was elected mayor of the city of Suisun. Kiren Wilson came out as transgender in high school.Courtesy of Lori Wilson

They include measures that would require public schools to provide an all-gender restroom, require teachers to receive LGBTQ cultural competency training, bar insurance companies in other states from denying gender-affirming care to Californians, and ensure that courts give priority to affirming a child’s gender identity in parental custody decision-making.

LGBTQ advocates say those bills address real issues facing Californians, but are also meant to send a message that the Golden State continues to make progress on equality issues, even as Republicans try to capitalize on fears about trans people earlier of the 2024 elections.

“We are going through a really dark time in terms of fighting for full equality for LGBT people,” said Craig Pulsipher, legislative director of Equality California, one of the largest community advocacy groups in the state. “These attacks have very real impacts on the safety and well-being of trans people. It is a true battle for trans lives.”

California is not immune to the anti-trans tide that has risen nationally. Although state law has supported LGBTQ rights, transphobia has seeped into the culture, advocates say. Last month, two high school runners who were assumed to be transgender dropped out of the state track championships due to threats to their safety; earlier in the month, the San Francisco Republican Party hosted a vitriolic anti-trans rally at a restaurant in North Beach.

But the state is among the few places in the country that are actively challenging anti-LGBTQ campaigns.

More than 500 anti-trans bills, from all 50 states, have been up for grabs so far this year, many of them targeting transgender youth. In several states, laws have already prohibited gender-affirming care for minors, limited the participation of trans athletes in school sports, or prohibited teachers from discussing gender or sexuality in classrooms. Legislation has also focused on drag shows and access to adult care.

Only one such bill has been introduced in California this year, Assembly Bill 1314, which would require school districts to notify parents if their child is using a different name or gender than the one assigned. at birth. But the Republican-led bill was shelved without a committee hearing.

In fact, California Governor Gavin Newsom has declared the state a haven for transgender youth and their families. He signed a law last year that would allow them to seek gender-affirming care here if they come from a state where it has been banned.

“California is one of the few states where there is actually an attempt to meet the urgency of the moment: to say that trans people are under attack, and we as a state will do everything in our power and our resources to make it happen. life safer and better for trans people,” said Kellan Baker, executive director of the Whitman-Walker Institute, an LGBTQ health and research group in Washington, D.C.

In many ways, the anti-trans movement has forced lawmakers to re-litigate issues that have been settled in California for about a decade. In 2013, the state passed a law guaranteeing transgender students the ability to participate in school activities consistent with their gender identity, allowing trans students access to sports and bathrooms in public schools. The accompanying guidance from the state Department of Education advises districts not to reveal a student’s gender identity to the parent without the “prior consent of the student.”

But conservative groups have filed several lawsuits against the law in recent years, arguing that it violates the rights of parents; the lawsuits were brought by parents who said they should have been notified of their children’s gender transitions.

One of the most sweeping proposals on Capitol Hill this year, Assemblyman Rick Zbur’s AB5, would require all public schools to provide at least one hour of teacher training each year on LGBTQ inclusion issues. The requirement would apply to educators who work with students in grades 7 through 12. The training is, in part, an indirect response to challenges to the 2013 state law, as it would give teachers more guidance on when it might be harmful to share information about a child’s decision to come out, even if they have an abusive or unsupportive home life.

Zbur, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said the school system is one of the most important fronts in the effort to provide support for LGBTQ youth as their community is under attack. He noted that youth in the community are much more likely than their heterosexual peers to face bullying and have higher rates of suicide and homelessness.

“We still have a lot to do to help trans kids,” said Zbur, a gay man and former executive director of Equality California. “People in other states need to see that the picture is not bleak.”

Wilson, who was elected to the Legislature in 2022, said California has a duty to “draw a line in the sand” against anti-trans efforts that have gained traction in other state capitals. It carries AB957, which would apply to child custody cases where one parent does not support a minor’s gender transition and directs courts to find it is in the “best interest” of the child to have their gender confirmed. and chosen name.

California Assemblywoman Lori Wilson is pictured with her sons Kiren, left, and Tyler at her swearing-in ceremony in April 2022. Kiren Wilson came out as transgender in high school.
California Assemblywoman Lori Wilson is pictured with her sons Kiren, left, and Tyler at her swearing-in ceremony in April 2022. Kiren Wilson came out as transgender in high school.Courtesy of Lori Wilson

Wilson also co-authored a bill last year that prohibits law enforcement and healthcare providers from cooperating with authorities in other states, such as Texas or Florida, who may seek to prosecute parents for seeking medical care that affirm gender for transgender children.

She said the message to trans people in other states reflects desperate times: “You can come here. We will not only support them, but we will protect them.”

Still, some LGBTQ law experts said it remains to be seen whether California and other states can truly provide shelter for trans people, and specifically protect children and their families from prosecution if they seek care that is prohibited in their home state. .

And they point out that leaving their home states for gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers, hormone therapy or surgical procedures, in California would likely be financially impractical and, in many cases, impossible for the vast majority of people and families.

“Symbolically, narratively, politically, legally, California does a lot of things right. But it can’t be a safe space for people who are struggling when they can’t afford to live here,” said Stephen Menendian, deputy director of the Haas Institute for a Just and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley.

Some LGBTQ advocates have said the effort to label California a haven for trans people has more to do with optics than substance, particularly amid the state’s dual housing and wealth inequality crises.

California’s claim to be a sanctuary state is a “public relations tactic,” said Eric Stanley, vice president of pedagogy at UC Berkeley’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies.

“Low-income trans people know that California’s story of rainbow progress is a lie,” Stanley said in an email. “This is dangerous because it allows politicians to create a false narrative that trans people have access to what they need here, including security.”

That analysis resonates with Ebony Harper, executive director of California TRANScends, which advocates for health equity for transgender people. Like Wilson and her son, Harper, a few years ago, she had begun to feel optimistic about the cultural and political climate and the acceptance of trans people, especially children.

“If you asked me if I saw a way forward, I would have said yes, it’s bad right now, but I see a way,” said Harper, who is transgender. “We were paving a road, but they trampled on it, they deconstructed it. We have to find a new path now.”

Contact Dustin Gardiner: [email protected]; Twitter: @dustingardiner; contact Erin Allday: [email protected]; Twitter: @erinallday