Sixteen-year-old Ashton Lee is a junior at Manteca High School in the Manteca Unified School District, located in a small conservative town in the San Joaquin Valley. He says his friends can spot him a mile away.
“I’m pretty masculine … I have broad shoulders and I’m pretty tall,” Ashton says. “I’m built like my dad.”
He is the child of a biracial marriage. But it’s not his race that has caused inner turmoil. It’s his gender identity. Ashton was born a girl but identifies as a boy.
“I used to go by Kimberly,” he says. “It never really felt like it was my real name. It never fit me.”
Ashton says he can remember not fitting in as early as preschool. Later on, in middle school, he battled depression and thoughts of suicide. He says his life finally changed a couple years ago after he did his own research and explored the meaning of being transgender.
“I had been struggling with not feeling right in my body my whole life,” Lee says. “It just clicked when I read that. I’m not a freak … other people feel like this.”
Ashton says he still felt extremely uncomfortable at school because he was treated like a female student. He saw an opportunity for change last year when a bill giving transgender students more rights on campus made its way to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.
That bill, AB1266, is also known as the School Success and Opportunity Act. The law was enacted this year, and Ashton decided to use it after he was assigned to an all-girls aerobic class.
The law allows transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity. They can also try out for sports teams and take part in extracurricular activities without any gender restrictions.
Like many California school districts, Manteca Unified was now faced with trying to implement this very controversial new policy.
“We had a lot of conversations about how to deal with this,” says Clara Schmiedt, Manteca Unified’s director of secondary education, who was picked to develop a new district policy after Ashton came forward. “Controversy on either side of this is something that a school district does not want.”
Schmiedt did her own research, calling other districts and meeting with attorneys. She says it became clear to her that Ashton was entitled to certain rights.
Manteca Unified now joins other school districts that are granting accommodations on a case-by-case basis. In Ashton’s case, his teachers have to address him by his new name and use all the corresponding male pronouns. And he is free to use the boys’ restroom and the boys’ locker rooms.
“It really boiled down to the fact that (Ashton) really just wanted to be treated like a male student,” says Schmiedt. “I think our staff was really good, too, about helping parents to understand that it wasn’t our choice. It really was about following the law.”
Fears About Kids’ Privacy
Parents in Manteca who spoke off the record say they’re concerned about their children’s privacy. They also fear male students could abuse the law to access girl’s restrooms and locker rooms. That sentiment is echoed by Miguel Mendoza, a parent in the Chino Hills Valley Unified School District in Southern California. That district recently adopted a resolution opposing the new law.
“When I was in high school, I know of so many boys who would have loved to have switched their identities for a day to walk into a girl’s locker room or a girl’s restroom,” Mendoza says. “My prediction is an increase of sexual assaults in the public school system.”
Mendoza is throwing his support behind a referendum movement to overturn the law. Opponents have gathered enough signatures to qualify an initiative on the November ballot. California’s secretary of State is in the process of validating those signatures. Mendoza feels confident the initiative will move forward.
“The way this law is written, it seems like it was passed without thinking,” Mendoza says.
Despite the recall push, school districts are still required to follow the rule. Many are turning to the San Francisco Unified School District. SFUSD has been granting equal rights to transgender students for almost a decade, helping these young people with everything from a legal name change to coming out to families and friends.
The district also offers teacher training to make educators feel comfortable, too.
“Teachers want to be sure they’re doing the right thing,” says Kevin Gogin, SFUSD’s director of safety and wellness. “They usually come to us with some very basic questions like, ‘What if I use the wrong pronoun for a transgender student?’ ”
In Manteca, some community members expect a tougher road ahead as more transgender students come forward – especially if a male student identifies as a female and wants access to girls’ facilities.
“From talking with parents, that would be a big issue,” says Manteca High School Principal Frank Gonzales. “We’ll cross the road when we get to it. I don’t know how to handle it. That’s going to be very challenging for us.”
Some districts are keeping a close eye on the ongoing referendum movement. The state is expected to finish validating signatures by next month. If those signatures are legitimate, the initiative goes on the ballot and the law is put on hold, pending the November election.