Governor Jerry Brown is widely expected to sign State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano's AB 1266, which would allow public-school students to choose the bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams that fit their gender identity. But let's presume that you're not in high school anymore. Or a transgender person. Should you care about this bill?
You should—in part because it represents the first shots in the next big battle in the Culture Wars. After all, the LGB part of the LGBT movement scored a major victory with the marriage cases last month. It's not that the Ts didn't win too, but, say transgender activists, they still have a much longer way to go. "People are becoming aware of the immense levels of discrimation and prejudice that the transgender community faces," says Ilona Turner, the Legal Director for the Transgender Law Center. She points to statistics showing disproportionately high rates of poverty, unemployment, and contact with the prison system for transgenendered people, all of which she believes "stem from that widespread bias and disapproval."
Rest assured, for schoolchildren with non-standard gender identities, Ammiano's bill would be a big deal. "Students have to be allowed to participate—as themselves," says Jill Marcellus, ommunications Manager of the Gay Straight Alliance Network. "That means that transgender schoolchildren should be allowed to prepare for gym with the gender with which they identify." But it may be an even bigger deal for movement leaders, for whom this post-Prop 8 moment presents a rare opportunity to tell their story. "There is a real space opening up in terms of energy and fundraising [for gay rights causes]. People are looking to what is next," says Turner. "A lot of people are concluding that it is transgender issues." To try to tap into that fundraising energy, the Transgender Law Center has just launched a campaign that it calls #MoreThanMarriage. "Marriage laws are important for transgender people," says Mark Snyder, the Center's communications manager, "but there is so much more that needs to be accomplished."
Outside of the San Francisco bubble, say advocates, the politics of gender identity are where gay rights were when Rent came out in 1994: The movement has figured out what it wants, but it hasn't had much luck convincing the broader public yet. Turner says that the transgender rights advocates are "still working on the basic message that we are people too, we are not sick or wrong."
And so the new battle for hearts and minds begins. Just as marriage equality advocates have prevailed by couching their arguments in terms both liberals and moderates (and even some conservatives) can agree with, transgender rights activists are currently making their own apple-pie appeals. "We are just fighting for everyone’s right to be their authentic self," says Turner. "That is a fundamental American value. It’s not about gender. It’s about being told that it’s not okay to be who you are."