Sixteen-year-old Ashton Lee (right) and his mother, Catherine, (left) were successful in getting the Manteca Unified School District to address the rights of transgender students on campus. (Ana Tintocalis/KQED)

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.

  • caileigh

    gotta love hod big and scary everyone seems to think transwomen are 🙁

    • Toni Coughlin

      Seriously… I’ve been using the ladies’ rooms for years, and I’ve never had any kind of issue (even at my gym).

    • JoeNCA

      And how apparently transmen are all supposed to use the women’s room.

      • caileigh

        honestly im waiting for that to come up. when conservative s realize that my friend who is a bear is supposed to use the womens room, im hoping lawmaker’s head will explode.

  • Eloise

    “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.”

    That is just it… boys want to switch FOR A DAY. Ashton, and others like him, want to switch for the rest of their lives… If the person is committed to being treated as a particular gender for the long term, that should be honored.

  • christian_transgender

    People get a clue. AB 1266 should have happened long ago and it will allow students to grow up socially in the gender they will spend their life in. I was so mad at all the lies being told that I had to debunk them: My trans brothers & sisters, please share them.

    • crash2parties

      AB1266 *did* happen a long time ago! There is nothing in AB1266 that isn’t already part of California law; the new bill simply made it simple and clear. In addition, the Federal Dept of Ed some years ago sent out a letter to all schools that receive any Federal funds that they *cannot* discriminate against transgender students. This in turn led to a number of cases such as the one one in Northern California where the school district was taken to court by the Fed dept of ed and the Fed dept of Justice for discriminating against a trans student…and lost.

      The parties pushing for the repeal are doing it for two reasons:

      1. Their cushy, donation based salaries from Prop-8 ran out when it was defeated at the US Supreme Court.
      2. The GOP/TP in California hopes to use the “threat” of transgender students as a way to get religious, conservative voters to the polls in November.

      • christian_transgender

        Exactly correct, in fact you are so right that AB 1266 impacts *only* the CA Ed code section 220x. Also in July 2013, last year, same thing with the (CA) Arcadia school district……few days ago with a school in Maine. Yes, sireee……..AB 1266 is not a *new* law for it can’t supersede federal law as you stated………it is what I like to think of as a “re-affirming” law.

        The message of AB 1266 is this: “School districts, find, steal, or buy a clue……..what part of (sex) discrimination are you *pretending*…failing to understand?

  • AmericanMike

    PFAS has distributed the opinion of a leading education law firm as well as the Pacific Justice Institute, both stating emphatically that AB 1266 is on hold pending the outcome of the referendum. We have also appealed to the basic definition of a referendum: It is a process to assure that a law that has not taken effect never does take effect. It is in essence the “people’s veto”. Even the spokesperson for the author of AB 1266 is quoted as conceding that the law is not in effect.

    • Dan Brekke

      As has been widely reported, referendum supporters turned in 619,244 signatures, and 504,670 of those need to be valid to get the issue on the ballot. Given those numbers, the referendum will go forward if 81.5 percent of the signatures are valid. The Secretary of State’s latest count, issued Friday, shows that about 78.6 percent of the signatures checked so far are valid. That having been said, fewer than 10 percent of the signatures have been checked so far; Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Alameda, San Bernardino, Riverside, Kern and Sacramento counties are among those that have yet to report their results.

      • JoeNCA

        It’s now at 78.7% with 17.2% of signatures checked. That means the remaining signatures would need an 82% validity rate in order to qualify for the ballot. That’s way, way, way high. That would be utterly unprecedented. The counties that have come in have been on average only slightly higher than the projected validity rates. That gives it less than a 1% chance of making it to the ballot.

    • crash2parties

      Would this be the same Pacific Justice Institute that has repeatedly made up stories regarding trans students and fed them to the press, only to be proven wrong each time? The same one that outed a specific trans student in Colorado and repeatedly made her life so miserable that she was on suicide watch? They are bullies that are simply looking for donations to pay their salaries and maybe, to be used by the GOP/TP in California as an issue to get conservative, religious voters to the polls. Sadly, they are preaching behavior that is anything but Christian…

      • JoeNCA

        Yup, that would be the same.

    • JoeNCA

      Which clearly still doesn’t preclude schools like Manteca from implementing their own policies. Even if AB1266 never happened or was repealed, schools are still going ahead with implementing such policies on their own.

  • selena

    Perhaps those that are worried about boys going into girls restrooms to sexually assault the girls need to be better parents to thier sons and teach them respect and how to respect others

  • Carson

    Hang in there Ashton and Catherine! You rock.

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