Short of signatures for fall, organizers target California’s 2026 ballot for tightening transgender rights


Conservative groups and LGBTQ+ rights supporters protest outside the Glendale Unified School District offices in Glendale on June 6, 2023. Several hundred people gathered at district headquarters, split between those who support or oppose teaching about exposing youngsters to LGBTQ+ issues in schools.

Credit: Keith Birmingham/The Orange County Register via AP

California activists seeking to rein in transgender children’s rights to care and self-expression failed to place a trifecta of restrictions on the November ballot.

The organization Students First: Protect Kids California started too late to consolidate their three separate initiatives into one, and its signature-gathering came up short of the 546,651 verifiable signatures that had to be collected within six months to make the presidential election ballot. The goal was to collect 800,000 signatures to be safe.

But battles over transgender issues will continue to burn bright in courts, school districts and the Legislature. Despite a setback, initiative organizers were buoyed by the 400,000 signatures that thousands of volunteers collected. They are confident that they will attract more donations and enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot two years from now — and find more support than leaders in heavily Democratic California assume exists.  

“We’re very confident that voters would pass this if it gets to the ballot box,” said Jonathan Zachreson, a Roseville City school board member and co-founder of Protect Kids California. “We gathered more signatures for a statewide initiative than any all-volunteer effort in the history of California.”

The three-pronged initiative would:

  • Prohibit transgender female students in grades seven and up from participating in female sports while restricting gender-segregated bathrooms and locker room facilities to students assigned that gender at birth. The initiative would overturn a decade-old state law that requires schools to accommodate a student’s gender identity in their choice of sports and activities.
  • Ban gender-affirming health care for transgender patients under 18.
  • Require schools to notify parents if a student identifies as transgender through actions like switching a name or to a pronoun associated with a different gender, joining a sports team or using a bathroom that doesn’t match the student’s sex assigned at birth or school record.

The last issue has sparked a firestorm within the past year.

Last week, a Democratic legislator introduced a late-session bill that would preempt mandatory parental notification. Assembly Bill 1955, by Assemblymember Chris Ward, D-San Diego, would prohibit school districts from adopting a mandatory parental notification policy and bar them from punishing teachers who defy outing policies of LGBTQ+ students.

Last year, Assemblymember Bill Essayli, R-Corona, introduced a bill that would require parental notification, but AB 1314 died in the Assembly Education Committee without getting a hearing. Committee Chair Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, reasoned the bill would “potentially provide a forum for increasingly hateful rhetoric targeting LGBTQ youth.”

Ward cited surveys of transgender and gender nonconforming youths that found most felt unsafe or unsupported at home. In one national survey, 10% reported someone at home had been violent toward them because they were transgender, and 15% had run away or were kicked out of home because they were transgender.

The California Department of Education has issued guidance that warns that parental notification policies would violate students’ privacy rights and cites a California School Boards Association model policy that urges districts to protect students’ gender preferences.

But Zachreson argues that even if children have a right to gender privacy that excludes their parents, which he denies exists, students waive it through their actions.  “At school, their teachers know about it, their peers and volunteers know about it, other kids’ parents know about it —  and yet the child’s own parent doesn’t know that the school is actively participating in the social transition,” he said.

In some instances, he said, schools are actively taking steps to keep name changes and other forms of gender expression secret from the parents.

“What we’re saying is, no, you can’t do that. You have to involve the parents in those decisions,” he said.

Ward responds that many teachers don’t want to be coerced to interfere with students’ privacy and gender preferences. “Teachers have a job to do,” he said. “They are not the gender police.”

A half-dozen school districts with conservative boards, including Rocklin, Temecula Valley and Chino Valley, have adopted mandatory parental notification policies. Last fall, California Attorney General Rob Bonta sued Chino Valley, arguing its policy is discriminatory. A state Superior Court judge in San Bernardino agreed that it violated the federal equal protection clause and granted a preliminary injunction. The case is on appeal.

Last July, a judge for the U.S. District of Eastern California threw out a parent’s lawsuit against Chico Unified for its policy prohibiting disclosure of a student’s transgender status to their parent without the student’s explicit consent. The court ruled that it was appropriate for the district to allow students to disclose their gender identity to their parents “on their own terms.” Bonta and attorneys general from 15 states filed briefs supporting Chico Unified; the case, too, is on appeal.

While some teachers vow to sue if required to out transgender students to their parents, a federal judge in Southern California sided with two teachers who sued Escondido Union School District for violating their religious beliefs by requiring them to withhold information to parents about the gender transition of children. The judge issued a preliminary injunction against the district and then ordered the return of the suspended teachers to the classroom.

No California appellate court has issued a ruling on parent notification, and it will probably take the U.S. Supreme Court for a definitive decision. Essayli pledged to take a case there.

The national picture

Seven states, all in the deeply red Midwest and South, have laws requiring identification of transgender students to their parents, while five, including Florida and Arizona, don’t require it but encourage districts to adopt ther own version, according to the Movement Advancement Project or MAP, an independent nonprofit.

Two dozen states, including Florida, Texas, and many Southern and Midwest states ban best-practice health care, medication and surgical care for transgender youth, and six states, including Florida, make it a felony to provide surgical care for transgender care. Proponents cite the decision in March by the English public health system to prohibit youths under 16 from beginning a medical gender transition to bolster the case for tighter restrictions in the United States.  

California has taken the opposite position; it is one of 15 like-minded states and the District of Columbia with shield laws to protect access to transgender health care. They include New York, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Massachusetts.

Twenty-five states have laws or regulations banning the participation of 13- to 17-year-old transgender youth in participating in sports consistent with their gender identification.

Not one solidly blue state is among those that have adopted the restrictions that Protect Kids California is calling for. But Zachreson and co-founder Erin Friday insist that contrary to the strong opposition in the Legislature, California voters would be open to their proposals. They point to favorable results in a survey of 1,000 California likely voters by the Republican-leaning, conservative pollster Spry Strategies last November.

  • 59% said they would support and 29% would oppose legislation that “restricts people who are biologically male, but who now identify as women, from playing on girl’s sports teams and from sharing facilities that have traditionally been reserved for women.”
  • 72% said they agreed, and 21% disagreed that “parents should be notified if their child identifies as transgender in school.”
  • 21% said they agreed, and 64% disagreed that “children who say they identify as transgender should be allowed to undergo surgeries to try to change them to the opposite sex or take off-label medications and hormones.”

The voters surveyed were geographically representative and reflective of party affiliation, but not demographically: The respondents were mostly white and over 60, and, in a progressive state, were divided roughly evenly among conservatives, moderates and liberals.

Two versions of protecting children

Both sides in this divisive cultural issue say they’re motivated to protect children. One side says it’s protecting transgender children to live as they are, without bias and prejudice that contribute to despair and suicidal thoughts. The other side says it’s protecting kids from coercion to explore who they aren’t, from gender confusion and exposure to values at odds with their family’s.

Zachreson and Friday wanted to title their initiative “Protect Kids of California Act of 2024.” But Bonta, whose office reviews initiatives’ titles and summaries, chose instead “Restrict Rights of Transgender Youth. Initiative Statute.” Zachreson and Friday, an attorney, appealed the decision, but a Superior Court judge in Sacramento upheld Bonta’s wording, which he said was accurate, not misleading or prejudicial.

Zachreson is appealing again. A more objective title and summary would make a huge difference, he said, by attracting financial backing to hire signature collectors and the support and resources of the California Republican Party, which declined to endorse the initiative. That was a strategic mistake in an election year when turnout will be critical.

”The people who support the initiative are passionate about it,” he said.

Political observer Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine University, agreed that the gender debate could have motivated Republicans and swing voters to go to the polls. 

“There’s no question that the Attorney General’s ballot language had a devastating effect on the initiative’s supporters, and it could have almost as much of an impact on Republican congressional candidates this fall,” he said.

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