Growing up, Nori Herras felt like an intruder walking into the boy’s locker room. Classmates certainly treated her like one, bashing her into walls, sexually assaulting her, roughing her up, spitting out hateful slurs. When she reported the incidents, principals, administrators and coaches told her to “man up” so no one would bother her.
Herras, a male-to-female transgender person, took their directive to heart. She quelled the urge to sway her hips. She dressed like a guy. She got a crew cut and let her eyebrows grow out. She lowered her voice. She tried.
At home the abuse continued, as she tried to stamp out impulses to identify as female. At times, suicide seemed a tempting solution. Though Herras developed a jaded resilience, she still needed to get away. The isolation drove her to skip class and instead wander around downtown San Jose during the day, chatting up vagrants or biding her time at the Billy DeFrank Center, an LGBT community outreach.
She credits those locker room beatings with preventing her graduation from high school. Overfelt High School denied her a diploma because of missing P.E. credits.
“I wanted nothing more than to be comfortable in my own skin,” says Herras, now 40 and incontrovertibly feminine. “I would have wanted to be around female bodies in the girls’ locker room because I’ve always identified as female. I would have felt safe being around people more like me.”
Transgender youth struggle with disproportionately high rates of self-harm, suicide attempts and homelessness, in large part because they grow up feeling out of place. For that reason, Herras, now a coordinator at the Billy DeFrank Center, celebrates the passage of AB 1266, a bill Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Monday that lets students pick bathroom and locker room facilities, as well as sex-segregated programs and activities, based on gender identity instead of chromosomes. That means, after intensive counseling and a thorough appeal process, a born-male or born-female student can join an opposite-sex sports team and changing room.
The School Success and Opportunity Act, authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), passed less than two weeks after it made it onto Brown’s desk. California is the first to have a statewide statute governing all school districts.
Some local school officials signed their own letters of support for the legislation, including Santa Clara County Board of Education Trustee Darcie Green, who encouraged her peers in South Bay districts to endorse it with her.
“All students should have a fair chance to fully participate and succeed in school, so that they can graduate with their classmates,” reads the letter Green signed off on. “While existing California law already broadly prohibits discrimination against transgender students, they are often excluded from programs, activities, physical education classes, team sports and other educational opportunities simply because of who they are.”
Several other petitions in support made their way to Sacramento leading up to the law’s passage, including one with 6,000 signatures presented on July 31 to Brown by a 16-year-old transgender boy from Manteca.
Aside from opposition from fringe right-wing media, there wasn’t a publicized effort to kill the bill. It’s possible conservatives tired out after losing the fight over gay marriage, but opponents of the new legislation say the so-called “bathroom bill” disregards gender-normative pupils and leaves open the possibility for sexually predatory students to sneak into bathrooms of the opposite sex.
Complications could also arise when allowing opposite-sex participants on a competitive sports team, where physical advantage can raise questions of fairness, they point out. The issue recently received scrutiny in the controversy surrounding transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox, whose bouts against female athletes puts her at the center of a polarizing debate over gender equity, safety and transphobia in sports. Similar debates may arise with K-12 sports and parents’ concerns about their daughter pitted against a born-male transsexual on the wrestling mat or the basketball court.
“This bill takes an open-ended definition that leaves it open to the individual to define what gender is, and neither this bill nor current law affords a clear definition as to what constitutes legitimate gender identity or gender expression,” Ben Lopez, spokesman for the Traditional Values Coalition, told the state Assembly in April.
AB 1266, co-sponsored by Equality California, Transgender Law Center, Gender Spectrum, GSA Network and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, won’t be much of a departure from existing rules in the Education Code, however. California already prevents schools from discriminating against students on the basis of gender identity.
“Youth anywhere on the LGBT spectrum are already considered a protected class under the education code’s non-discrimination laws,” says Sammy Maramba-Ferrell, a program coordinator for Project Outlet, a LGBT advocacy group that offers outreach and counseling to students at several South Bay schools. “But this bill reaffirms this value in education, because laws are not necessarily being enforced or may lack specificity for things like facility use. Because a lot of times a district doesn’t know how to handle that and lacks gender-neutral facilities to accommodate that.”
A school district in Los Angeles successfully enacted such a policy years ago, and it is going ahead with plans to build gender-neutral facilities. Massachusetts recently passed a law granting similar protections.
“I guess people are realizing that, even though it affects a small minority of students, this is a population that deserves fair treatment,” Maramba-Ferrell says. Lawmakers in other states have their eyes trained on California right now, says James Gonzalez, president of LGBT rights group Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee. People are realizing the gravity of what’s at stake: lives, education and opportunity.
“Suicide among youth due to sexual orientation or gender identification is so tragic that this bill would possibly save lives,” Gonzalez says.
Stats on the transgender population are tough to track since many may report their gender preference or biological sex but not publicly identify as transgender. Kay Brown, a teacher at the Harvey Milk Institute in San Francisco, used FBI data to estimate that transgender Americans have a one in 12 chance of being murdered compared to the average person’s chance of 1 in 18,000—a controversial claim that is still under study. Accounts of family abuse and social stigmas that lead to depression and other high-risk behavior among transgender people are well documented.
Herras says the simple fact of being included, feeling a sense of belonging or having the option of legitimate recourse for protection can go a long way in validating the identity of transgender kids. Laws can’t stop harassment, but they can give people an avenue to report abuse and to seek protection from the institution, as well as make gender nonconformity less alarming to future generations.
“What I’ve seen in my experience is that children are more open-minded than we give them credit for,” says Herras. “Kids come from a place of unconditional love—they have to learn the hatred. In middle school, a lot of them start learning to act out more against other people. But if they grow up knowing that their transgender peers have a place, we will see less violence. I truly believe that.”