MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. And today, we want to talk about policies designed to help a group of students feel more welcomed and comfortable in school, and why those policies are also making some parents uneasy. At the start of the new year, a law went into effect in California that allows transgender students to use school restrooms and play on sports teams based on the gender with which they identify rather than the one with which they were born. Now the law is being praised by families, which include gender nonconforming kids, but other parents and their advocates are criticizing the law saying it's too vague, and that it could compromise the privacy, the comfort and the rights of other children.
So we wanted to talk about this so we've called Mara Keisling. She is the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. Also with us is Melanie Mason. She is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times Sacramento Bureau and she's been covering this law, believed to be the first in the nation. Writer Jennifer Savage is a mother of two, including a gender nonconforming child. And attorney Gayle Trotter is a conservative columnists and mom of six - a frequent panelist on our parenting roundtable. Welcome to you all - or welcome back I should say. Thank you for joining us.
MARA KEISLING: Thank you for having us.
MELANIE MASON: Thank you.
JENNIFER SAVAGE: Thank you.
GAYLE TROTTER: Thank you.
MARTIN: Now, Melanie, I want to start with you 'cause I'd like you to explain the law. It's been described in different ways. I want you to clarify exactly what the law does and doesn't do.
MASON: Sure, well, this is a bill that was introduced last year by assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who's a Democrat from San Francisco, and what it does is it requires that a student be allowed to participate in activities such as sports teams or use facilities like restrooms or locker rooms based on their gender identity not their biological sex.
MARTIN: Does it make any specific requirements of how this is to be accommodated for example?
MASON: It doesn't. You know, it really does leave a lot of the actual implementation and policies up to the individual school districts themselves. What it really does is sort of set a red line of what these students should be allowed to do based on their gender identity. But in terms of the specific implementation, individual school districts can make those decisions.
MARTIN: Mara, can you help us understand why this is so important to transgender people. And if you wouldn't mind defining that term for people - some people may not have ever heard that term and don't know what it means.
KEISLING: Sure, for the purposes here, a transgender person is somebody whose gender identity is different than the sex they were assigned at birth. And I think most Americans now have heard about transgender people. And why this law is so important is really simple - we as a country have said that all kids get to be educated, all kids get to have access to public education. And over the years, particularly over the last 40 or 50 years, small accommodations have had to be made for lots of different kinds of kids.
There have to be wheelchair accessible facilities, there have to be individualized education plans for certain students. And this is a simple accommodation that allows all students - not just trans students - but to have access to all programs and all facilities based on their gender identity.
MARTIN: Well, the question of how simple it is is I think the one that - the thing that we want to talk about a little bit more.
MARTIN: But I want to hear first from Jennifer Savage. Now you don't - for your daughter, you don't use the term transgender, but you use the term gender nonconforming. You want to talk - well, to the degree that any parent actually talks about their child in those terms, but tell us what you mean by that and tell us where your daughter's coming from and how you react to this.
SAVAGE: My daughter was gendered female at birth and we use the term gender nonconforming because she still identifies as girl. She prefers the pronoun she, though she has gone along the gender spectrum, you know, for a while now. There was a time when she did prefer he and asked that we call her by a male name. In terms of gender nonconforming, my daughter looks very much like a boy - so she - in dress, in mannerisms, all of those things, and is often mistaken for a boy, which is fine with her - she has no issue with that.
Where it comes into play for us is, you know, for example, we take her to the swimming pool and she prefers to wear swimming trunks as opposed to a bathing suit. So we do see a lot of sort of sideway glances and that kind of thing when we have her in a women's bathroom.
MARTIN: How do you react to this law? Is this something that - have you encountered this whole question - well, your daughter's three, so school maybe isn't a big part of her world yet, but if you were in a public place, like if you go on a road trip, for example, what do you do?
SAVAGE: You know, she's actually seven.
MARTIN: She's seven, yeah. OK.
SAVAGE: And so she is in school. She's in second grade. And her school has gender-neutral bathrooms. So at school it's not so much of an issue, but we definitely do see, like I said, the sideways glances, the, you know, there's a boy in the women's bathroom. And she's old enough now that I think it doesn't seem as though you're bringing your toddler into the restroom with you, it seems as though you're bringing your son into the women's restroom, and people get upset about it. And, I mean, the way I handle it is, you know, this is where she feels comfortable and this is where she's going to go to the bathroom.
MARTIN: Gayle, you have an opinion about this. I understand your children go to two private schools so I don't know whether this would be an issue at your school, but, as I understand it, you oppose this law and you think it's unfair. Can you tell us why?
TROTTER: Many supporters of this law feel that it's well-intentioned and that it's kind to not only the children who are dealing with these very sensitive issues, but also because it's the mission of the school to be, as you said, inclusive and welcoming of all students. So whereas I completely support that principle of school environment that we need to support, the problem is that statistically the number of children dealing with these sensitive issues is very, very small. And this law is a very blunt instrument. And you even alluded to it - that it's very vague and the application of it is going to be based on the public school systems.
And I think it will be harmful not only to the children who are dealing with these sensitive issues, but also their classmates who are entitled to have their own bodily integrity and modesty when they're using the restrooms or other facilities. And also as an athlete, I think it's very important to have women have the opportunities, especially when they're at young ages, to participate in team sports. Many, many studies have shown how vitally important team sports are to women's self-confidence and leadership later on. And when you have children who are not biologically female playing on women's or girls' teams, then it's going to squeeze out some of these girls. So there will be victims of this law.
MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you - why harmful? Because you used the term harmful. What do you think is harmful about it? Is that the main issue you feel that if a girl - that a girl who's born a biological male has kind of a physical advantage playing on a girls' sports team, that that's unfair to the other girls? Is that the main harm you see? Or are there others?
TROTTER: I think there's also a really important part of school is being to teach the truth and to understand bodily integrity. And when we have this type of ideological law that's trying to push these types of ideas to young children, who are still very impressionable, trying to understand the world, then it's harmful not only to the children who are dealing with these sensitive issues, but also the other children who are trying to draw truth from school and to understand how the world works.
MARTIN: Well, I don't know that the families who are advocating this are trying to push an agenda so much as create some comfort and space for their children. I mean, I think one of the data points that was cited here is that a lot of kids who are transgender or gender nonconforming can have a really tough time in school.
MARTIN: They can be harassed, there's bullying.
MARTIN: There's a lot of depression. And so I don't know that they're trying to push something onto other people so much as to create space for their own kids. But I did want to ask Mara, and I do want to ask Melanie about that whole sports question. I mean, you know, I have twins who are boy-girl twins and there's - you know, they were born two minutes apart and the weight difference at birth was really minimal - it's really big now.
MARTIN: Even at the age - they're still young. So what about that, Mara?
KEISLING: Well, the NCAA has looked at this really carefully. They have really good guidelines, they have studied and studied and studied that. And, you know, I just have to kind of call out Gayle's use of the word truth. What she's talking about is her truth. And in her truth, gender nonconforming children, like the 7-year-old we just heard about, don't really exist. And transgender people don't really exist. Transgender people are perpetrating some sort of fraud in that version of the truth. And, you know, in reality, we have these kids who don't fit in who can't follow that false truth, that discriminatory old-fashioned non-truth truth. So you have to be able to get to the point where you understand that a transgender girl is a girl.
And if you're not willing to accept that even though her parents have accepted it, the medical community has accepted it, everybody in the world has accepted it, you're never going to understand that the school districts aren't bothered by this law. They like how it is. Several of the largest school districts had already had these policies in place - Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Monica and some others - and more and more have implemented them because the truth for these schools is there are transgender kids and they want transgender kids to have access to programs and facilities so they work on it. They work on it on a case-by-case basis with the students and sometimes the parents because that's the real truth.
MARTIN: Let me ask Melanie about the two issues that Gayle raised. One is the physical difference that can manifest between children who are born biologically male even if they embrace a female identity. And the second question I wanted to ask was the modesty question. I mean, there are people whose faith commitments require that they not be in a state of undress - in people - in the same intimate space of people who are of a different sort of gender. And I just wondered if those - Melanie, if those issues arose during the debate and how they were answered.
MASON: Sure. Well, with regards to the sports question, what supporters point to is that California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees all of the interscholastic sports in the state, already had a policy in place that allowed transgender students to participate in sports based on their gender identity as opposed to their biological sex. And that's something that you heard a lot from supporters of this bill and supporters of this law as it's moved through is that, they see this almost as a safety measure or redundancy building on current anti-discrimination law. They're saying that they're making explicit protections that already exist in current nondiscrimination law in the state and in the country.
And so when you see school districts like San Francisco and Los Angeles or the CIF already having those policies in place before the bill even went into effect, they're saying that this really is just making explicit what had already been understood to be protections.
MARTIN: OK, but I still don't think my question's been answered. If there is a - I mean, this arose during the Olympics with a female runner who competed as a female, who is - I don't know if she identifies as transgender. She clearly identifies as a female but was - anyway. There was a complaint by other female athletes that this was an unfair advantage. That she was out of the continuum of fairness in their view because of biological attributes. Now people could argue that about - you know, Michael Phelps has certain physical attributes that make him a terribly competitive swimmer. But what about that question, Melanie? Was that question ever answered?
MASON: The question...
MARTIN: And also the modesty question. OK.
MASON: Sure. With regards to the sports question, I believe it came up a bit as the bill was debated, although not necessarily a huge flash point in the debate, as least in California. I believe that there are studies that have been done with regards to the advantages that you see, particularly in children that are going through puberty. So not necessarily people who are competing at a more advanced, amateur or professional level.
And perhaps, Mara or one of the other parents is more familiar with those studies and can speak to that better than I can. With regards to the religious question or the question of exemption, that's something that the law does not touch. And the author of the bill feels that that's something that if a student or family needs an accommodation based on a religious concern or any other sort of concern, that that's something that the individual school district or school itself should deal with, but should not be written into the law as a sort of sweeping policy.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, our parenting roundtable is talking about a new law aimed at ensuring more support and comfort and a welcoming environment for transgendered public school students in California. Our guests our columnist Gayle Trotter, writer Jennifer Savage, Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality, and LA Times reporter Melanie Mason. That's who was speaking just now.
Gayle, you know, on the whole question of comfort, you can understand where some people would say, well, you know what? There are a lot of people who used to be uncomfortable going to school with black kids, too. There were a number of white kids who felt that their privilege entitled them to never be exposed to black people. And there were all kinds of myths that emerged around that. I mean, people who saw the movie "The Help"...
MARTIN: ...The book that was based on saw that there were all these mythologies around sort of diseases that black people supposedly had requiring them to have separate bathrooms. Can you see where somebody might feel that this is a similar case? That other people's kind of discomfort at something they're not familiar with doesn't trump other kids' right to be safe and welcome?
TROTTER: I completely agree with that, and I think that the real truth here is that any caring person does not want any child to feel unwelcome or excluded from school. And it is the school administrator's responsibility, deep responsibility to make sure each child is safe and welcome and able to do what the school's mission is to learn, to impart knowledge.
So that situation was terrible. And now we want to make sure that all these situations where people are being bullied, especially on the Internet, for being different than others - we want to prize diversity. We want to allow people to discover themselves. But we don't want to have a situation where the state government is pushing an ideology which makes other children feel uncomfortable. And this situation I would say is very different than racial situations. And that the key is - like what we're saying is - it's not just a religious desire to be modest. There are plenty of people who have no religious affiliation whatsoever, but those children would be made uncomfortable. And as you know in...
MARTIN: But what's a better idea? I mean, I don't - what's a better idea?
TROTTER: Well, the other woman mentioned that they had gender-neutral bathrooms. So there are other options that could be explored for these children, though not hurt - harm the other children who are in school, who would be trying to make things different for a very small number of kids and harming the vast majority of California public school students.
MARTIN: Jennifer, are you with us? Are you still with us?
SAVAGE: I am.
MARTIN: OK. How are you hearing this? I mean, I know that what's interesting, you've written about this. You said that the issue for your daughter is not that girls don't want to play with her because they think she'd be better, but the other boys don't want to play with a girl. So it's kind of - you're hearing it on kind of both ends. So how are you hearing this? So what are some of the things that going forward that you think you'll have to navigate? We only have about a minute and a half left. I apologize. This is a very rich and complicated topic. And I think we'll probably have to return to it to kind of really explore all the nuances. But, Jennifer, going forward, what do you think?
SAVAGE: I think that a couple things come up for me. I would be interested to hear the stats about this sort of - I keep hearing this small number of, you know, youth are trans. And maybe that's true. But maybe it's also that, you know, our culture just hasn't given them the space or room to be who they are. So we don't really have a good handle on how many kids are actually gender nonconforming or are actually trans. And maybe that's, you know - that's kind of beside the point. When it comes to, you know, sort of going forward, I would just say that it's not about discovery. Trans is not about discovery. Gender nonconforming is not about discovery, at least not in my mind.
These kids are who they are from the minute they are born. And so if you've ever sort of had a conversation with a trans youth or had a conversation with a child who's gender nonconforming, it's not that they, you know, were gendered girl at birth and then wake up one day and say, oh, I think I want to dress like a boy. They are that person, you know. And so we are just, like, with this law, I feel like, you know, it's just trying to afford them the sort of respect and dignity that they deserve. And, you know, my child's school has gender-neutral bathrooms, but that all of the bathrooms are gender-neutral. It's not that there's a gender-neutral bathroom that people who are uncomfortable can go to. It's all of the bathrooms. So it's a different ballgame, you know.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of a different ball game, there's so much to talk about here. And we've really only just scratched the surface. So let me just say that I think we will commit to coming back and talking about these issues again because, obviously, there's a lot more to talk about and discuss.
So thank you all so much for talking about this and making this first pass at this important topic. Melanie Mason is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times Sacramento Bureau, joining us from Sacramento. Writer Jennifer Savage - that's who was speaking just now - joined us from member station in KUFM in Missoula, Montana. Mara Keisling is the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. And attorney Gayle Trotter is a conservative columnist, mom of six. And they all - they both joined us in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much for joining us.
MASON: Thank you.
SAVAGE: Thank you.
TROTTER: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.