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School board candidate under fire for past transphobic statements

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School board candidate Josephine Zhao has come under fire for transphobic statements made to Chinese language newspapers in 2013. (Courtesy photo)

A school board candidate endorsed by city officials including Mayor London Breed and state Sen. Scott Wiener has come under fire from LGBTQ advocates for transphobic remarks she made to Chinese newspapers.

Members of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club have denounced political support for school board hopeful Josephine Zhao, who in 2013 advocated against gender-neutral bathrooms in San Francisco schools.

Last week, Mayor London Breed joined a list of local leaders, including Sen. Scott Wiener, who have endorsed Zhao’s campaign. Breed also endorsed SF Parent Political Action Committee co-founder Michelle Parker, a longtime education advocate and former president of the San Francisco Parent Teacher Association.

In 2013, AB 1266 was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, allowing transgender students to participate in all school activities, sports teams, and programs that match their gender identity, including access to bathrooms and lockers. At the time, Chinese language newspapers reported that Zhao opposed the policy on the grounds that gender-neutral bathrooms would lead to “public moral issues,” including rape, on school campuses, drawing the ire of LGBTQ rights advocates.

SEE RELATED: SF school officials stand by protections for transgender students

“We as a club have zero tolerance for transphobia, especially from elected officials who espouse transphobic policies or show a real ignorance in the way they make statements that affect the LGBTQ community or any community that is under attack by the current administration,” said Honey Mahogany, co-president of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club. “We can’t afford them a free pass.”

Mahogany said that the club’s membership is expected to vote on its endorsements next Tuesday, and could recommend an endorsement against Zhao as well as lead a political education campaign about Zhao’s record in the LGBTQ community, as was first reported by 48 Hills.

“I have a sense the club will go in the direction to come up with political programming that supports our candidate but also highlights those candidates that we view as being dangerous to the civil rights of the LGBTQ community,” said Mahogany.

According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, an annual survey of a random sample of students in grades 6-12 at 20 middle and 20 high schools, less than 1 percent of middle school students reported identifying as transgender, and 1 percent of high school students reported identifying as transgender in 2017.

“Not only are these [students] from a marginalized community, but they are youth and children and they need us to step up for them,” said Mahogany. “And they deserve representation that is taking their needs and concerns seriously and not espousing hate speech towards them or denying them basic rights.”

More than half of the 28 candidates who have registered to compete in the November 6 school board race were qualified ahead of Wednesday’s deadline, including Zhao and two transgender candidates — Mia Satya and Martin Rawlings-Fein.

“Immigrants, people of color and LGBTQ people have been accused of being rapists for hundreds of years as an excuse to pass repressive laws and encourage violence against already marginalized people,” said Satya. “Josephine has not publicly denounced her transphobic position and people who endorse her are complicit in this transphobic violence.”  

SEE RELATED: SF school board hopefuls among growing number of openly trans candidates nationwide

Maggie Muir, Breed’s campaign strategist, said that the mayor is supporting both Zhao and Parker because of “their strong record of advocacy on behalf of students and families in San Francisco.”

Wiener said that he would “never support a transphobic candidate,” and that Zhao “is not.”

“She made a bad decision and made some uneducated statements years ago. She has since conveyed to me and others that, as she learned more about the issue, she acknowledged that she was wrong, and that she is supportive of trans kids’ bathroom access,” he said, adding that “when it comes to LGBTQ civil rights, sometimes people have to learn and receive more information to evolve.”

Reflecting on the incident, Zhao said that her views were partly shaped after receiving “the wrong information.”

“I was wrong to oppose the [policy]. I have no intention to hurt the transgender community, but my action did, and I apologize for the action,” she said.

In recent years, Zhao, who is a landlord, said that she has been active on “many fronts” — including tenant-landord dispute mediations. She is a board member of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco, which advocates for landlords’ rights.

Zhao has also been endorsed by San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, Board of Equalization President Fiona Ma, supervisors Katy Tang and Catherine Stefani, and current commissioner Emily Murase, among others.

The latter said that Zhao could fill a gap in bridging language and cultural barriers that have prevented the San Francisco Unified School District from effectively reaching out to its Chinese immigrant and monolingual families.

Along with Murase, Zhao advocated to make a geometry summer course available to 10th grade students after the district switched to a common core curriculum, which she said limited options for students wishing to prepare for college by switching a mandatory algebra course from being taught at the 8th grade level to 9th grade.

In 2016, she advocated against a policy making condoms available to students in San Francisco’s middle school wellness centers, as was previously reported by the San Francisco Examiner.

SEE RELATED: SFUSD board OK’s distribution of condoms at middle schools

Zhao said that if elected to the school board, she would see her role as being a “conduit” for “bringing information to the parent and immigrant communities.”

Note: A member of Small Property Owners of San Francisco indicated that Zhao left the association to focus on the school board race.  


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