Transgender rights for students can help them succeed

I was pushed around for being skinny when I was a kid. Also for wearing an eye patch, for being the smart kid and for always acting like a performer. And did I mention I was called “Petunia”?

It doesn’t take much to make a child feel like an outsider. Most of us have felt that way at one time or another. What can be hard is helping children feel like they belong — like they are part of something bigger than themselves.

That’s what I always worked for as a teacher.

That is why I introduced Assembly Bill 1266, the School Success and Opportunity Act — to ensure that transgender students are not made to feel like outsiders in California’s public schools. We want all students to succeed. We want every student to have great opportunities.

I should mention that the San Francisco Unified School District — the district I was a trustee for — is a model in allowing transgender students to be themselves, and it has been a positive thing for the district’s students.

Unfortunately, in too many districts across the state, transgender students don’t get that chance to succeed because they aren’t allowed to be themselves in physical education classes, team sports and other important school activities.

Part of success is involving all students in the school activities they enjoy and want to pursue. We know girls who play sports develop leadership skills and have fewer self-destructive behaviors. We know boys can learn cooperation and gain self-esteem from their extracurricular groups.

Everyone benefits when children learn to play and work together in group activities. We want transgender children to have those benefits as well. When they don’t get that chance, it can result in missed credits, stigma, harassment and dropping out of school. This bill, which will be heard today by the Assembly Education Committee, will ensure that these students have the same opportunities to participate and succeed — and stay in school — as others.  

What does it look like when respecting and including transgender students is a success? There’s a pretty good example right here in the Bay Area. Gabrielle Ludwig, a 51-year-old basketball player at Mission College in Santa Clara, is getting support from her team and her school as one of the country’s first transgender community college athletes.

Her teammates look up to her as a woman with more experience. And her school supports her by treating her just like any other female athlete. What is happening at this community college should be able to happen at any school. From kindergarten to high school, kids need that supportive environment.

Will transgender students make some other children uncomfortable? Perhaps. I don’t want to minimize that, but new experiences are often uncomfortable. That can’t be an excuse for prejudice. I was a gay teacher at a time when that made some parents uncomfortable. They tried to ban people like me from the classroom.

Let me tell you, there’s a big difference between being uncomfortable and being told you don’t belong. My eye patch was physically uncomfortable, but that didn’t mean I shouldn’t have worn it for the sake of my vision. On the other hand, being told I didn’t belong in a classroom struck deep inside me. It taught me to fight for others who are told they don’t belong. Today, that’s transgender youth. Instead of making those kids feel like outcasts, we should ensure they have all the same opportunities and experiences as other children.

When they succeed, we all succeed.

Tom Ammiano is a state assemblyman whose 17th District covers San Francisco.

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