Ebony Harper (foreground) and Leon Burse (at right) spoke at a Transform California event in Sacramento. IMAGE BY Laurel Rosenhall

On the Offense: Transgender Californians aim to pre-empt ballot struggle

One after another they stepped to the podium telling stories of liberation through transformation.

There was the man, in suit and bowtie, who once played college basketball on a women’s team. There was the woman, in a red lace dress, who said attaining a female physique was like “holding a prize in my hand.” Gone were the anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide that came with living in the male body that didn’t match her spirit.

The stories they shared at this press conference outside the state Capitol were part of a broader statewide effort to make Californians more familiar with transgender people and the discrimination they say they face. Similar events have already taken place in Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco, with more planned for Fresno, Palm Springs and San Diego. Videos about Californians who changed their gender are featured on a website, and a media ad campaign is in the works.

The $1.2 million Transform California campaign is attempting to sway public opinion long before Californians might ever vote on any ballot measure that could restrict rights—like access to bathrooms and locker rooms—now granted to people whose gender identity doesn’t match the sex on their birth certificate.

Call it preventative politics.

Conservative groups have tried twice in recent years to put a measure on the California ballot that would require people to use facilities based on their assigned sex at birth. Both efforts fell short, but proponents are undaunted.

One goal of Transform California’s publicity effort: build resistance now. “It’s easier to reach people when you’re outside the crucible of a ballot measure campaign,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of the gay rights advocacy group Equality California.

His organization and the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, leaders of the Transform campaign, are inspired by lessons learned after California voters approved Proposition 8 in 2008. That measure outlawed same-sex marriage in the state, but was overturned by the courts—and a later U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage in every state.

“Both with Prop. 8 and with (an ordinance) in Houston, they got on the ballot and you had a very short amount of time to move communities,” Zbur said. “We know that progress is not something that is short term. It is gradual and long term, and it requires meeting people where they currently are in all the various communities in California.”

Approximately 1.4 million U.S. adults—about 0.6 percent—identify as transgender, according to a recent study

Transgender Adults in the United States

Transgender rights have become the latest flashpoint in America’s culture wars.

Earlier this year, North Carolina enacted a law requiring people to use public bathrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificate, essentially banning transgender people from restrooms that sync with their transformed identities. The Obama administration then directed every U.S. school district to allow students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity—a directive that 13 states promptly filed suit to challenge. The final resolution may be up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has temporarily blocked a Virginia court order allowing a transgender student who identifies as a boy to use the boys’ bathroom at school.

The issue also is playing out on a global stage: for the first time, transgender athletes competing in the current Olympics are allowed to join teams that fit their identities.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill three years ago allowing transgender public school students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identities. Supporters said it would reduce bullying; opponents warned it would invade the privacy of the majority of students who are used to single-sex toilets and showers.

“If the problem is that you’re not comfortable, how is it a solution to make the other 98 percent share that same intense discomfort? That’s just not logical,” said  former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks).

Opponents, via the group Privacy for All Students, tried to put a referendum on the ballot to overturn the law. Election officials determined that the effort lacked enough valid signatures. The group tried another tactic in 2015—proposing an initiative to expand the gender restrictions to bathrooms in any government building—but that effort also failed for lack of signatures.

Privacy for All Students hasn’t given up: It’s arguing in court that it had enough signatures to force a referendum on the school facilities law, and recently persuaded a judge to order local elections officials to release signatures for its lawyers to review.

If the group prevails, it aims to put the referendum on the ballot, perhaps in 2018, said spokeswoman Karen England. “We are confident that when it comes to the issue of locker rooms and restrooms and private facilities that the people are on our side,” said England, who’s talking about the issue at Christian youth conferences and encouraging churches to register new voters. “We believe it is an invasion and we will win at the ballot box.”

More Californians now favor open bathroom access than oppose it, the opposite of the national sentiment—in fact, 52 percent of California voters support the state policy allowing students to choose the bathroom that best suits them, according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll earlier this year. That was a huge increase from the 43 percent who favored the idea just three years ago.

The poll also found that people who personally know a transgender person are far more supportive of bathroom access: 62 percent of those who knew a transgender person supported the law, compared with 44 percent support among those who did not have a transgender friend or acquaintance.

“Doing these type of campaigns around different cities will… help enlighten other folks who don’t necessarily know that there are trans folks, or that they know trans folks,” said Leon Burse, the Sacramento man who once played on a women’s basketball team.

“We are people just like everybody else.”