Inside the Fight to Forcibly Out Transgender Students in California

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CJ’s mother warned him not to go to the Chino Valley Unified School Board meeting on July 20. “I didn’t want him to be there because of what had happened in Temecula,” Lisa told VICE News, referring to violent scenes at a school board meeting in a district just south of Chino Valley. just weeks earlier.

But CJ, a 16-year-old student at Chino Hill High School who had come out as trans 18 months earlier, wanted to hear about a policy the new school board president was going to introduce, because it was going to impact his and his friends’ lives.

The policy would force teachers to out trans students to their parents against their wishes. 

When CJ arrived at the meeting, he was greeted by a wave of anti-trans hostility. Video of the meeting shows people shouting anti-trans slogans and holding signs with anti-LGBTQ messaging. The district superintendent and numerous parents were kicked out for voicing their concerns. Then, the school board members voted 4-1 in favor of adopting it.

“I wasn’t ready for the hate when I walked in that door,” CJ told VICE News. “It was pretty powerful just walking in there. It was very scary. I think I stayed less than 10 minutes.”

CJ’s parents have lived in the area for 18 years and say they had never experienced any hatred or harassment for embracing their son’s transgender identity. But in 2022, amid a rash of anti-trans rhetoric and the emergence of a national “parents’ rights” movement, their local school board flipped from majority Democrat to majority Republican, and everything changed. The far-right focus on electing extremists to school boards around the country means that even in a blue state like California, where state-level anti-trans policies have failed, they’ve succeeded at the local level, with disastrous consequences for queer students and their families.

In Chino Valley, the new school board president Sonja Shaw, backed by extremist group Moms for Liberty, wasted no time in stripping away support and protections for the LGBTQ community in her district—meaning students like CJ and his family are now facing harassment from members of their own community. 

The Chino Valley policy went into effect when the new school year began in August, and days later CJ saw its impact when one of his trans friends, who is not out to his parents because of their deeply conservative Christian views, knocked on his door. According to CJ, his friend planned to die by suicide as a result of the new policy. 

CJ and some other friends were able to talk him down, and with the help of a hotline set up by an LGBTQ advocacy group, he is now receiving mental health counseling. But CJ is worried about what might happen next.

“I’m so afraid that I’m gonna wake up tomorrow, or the next day or the day after that, and I’m gonna find out that one of my friends isn’t here anymore,” CJ told VICE News, breaking down in tears. “All because of this stupid bullshit.”

Last week state Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a lawsuit against the Chino Valley school board and on Wednesday, Judge Tom Garza granted the state of California’s request for a temporary restraining order—meaning the policy is on hold for now. But both sides will be back in court in a month’s time, and the board, Republican lawmakers, and other right-wing figures have made it clear that this fight is far from over.

Which is why CJ’s parents are now considering drastic action in order to protect their son.

“What my husband and I have talked about every single night since July 20, is moving out of here.”

“The policy is damaging and dangerous because it basically tells my son that his existence is irrelevant and it basically tells me and my husband as a parent, that we are wrong for even accepting our child as being transgender,” Lisa told VICE News. “The damage it has caused in our family, for our family, for our son is immeasurable. What my husband and I have talked about every single night since July 20, is moving out of here.”

But finding somewhere safe to go is not going to be easy. In California alone, there are at least half a dozen school districts that have passed or are considering “forced outing” policies, according to attorney general Bonta.

“This policy threatens my safety”

In California, the effort to attack trans students began with Republican Assemblyman Bill Essayli, the author of Assembly Bill 1314, a bill that ultimately inspired the Chino Valley policy. AB 1314 would have required all schools in the state to inform the parents of any child they believed to be trans.

When the bill failed in April, Essayli didn’t give up. Instead, he shifted strategy and sought out allies at a local level. While Essayli’s bill was widely criticized and never received a hearing in Sacramento, it did find some support in the state, including from the board of the Chino Valley Unified School District, which passed a resolution supporting Essayli’s bill in April.

The new Chino Valley Unified School District Board chairwoman Sonja Shaw swept to victory in November 2022 with support from Moms for Liberty and helped flip the Chino Valley school board from a Democratic majority to a Republican one, running on a platform of so-called “parental rights.”

In June 2023, the board signaled its intent to undermine support for the LGBTQ community when it introduced a new rule banning all Pride flags and symbols from school campuses. In July, Shaw announced her plans to implement the forced outing policy, which uses language that, in places, mirrors Essayli’s failed bill word-for-word. It shares very specific details, such as the requirement that schools inform parents within three days.

The policy demands that the school notifies a child’s parents if they ask to change their name, pronouns, sex, or gender on unofficial records or simply request to be treated as a gender other than the biological sex or gender listed on their birth certificate.

Under the policy, a teacher will notify a school administrator, who will meet with the child to get more information, and unless the child explicitly says they are in physical danger from their parents, the school will inform the parents of the change.

Shaw believes that rather than endangering children, she is protecting them by informing parents, claiming to VICE News in August that “there’s actually studies that show parents pulled them in closer [after being informed about their child’s change of gender].”

When asked Shaw to produce evidence to back up this claim, Shaw didn’t respond to the question but told VICE News in an interview last week that she didn’t seek out or speak to any trans students in the district during the consultation period. She claimed she did speak to “people in the LGB community,” but when asked to provide the names of those people, she failed to respond. 

In fact, research from the Trevor Project last year revealed that fewer than one in three trans and gender nonbinary young people found their home to be gender-affirming, or accepting of their gender identity.

But Shaw was warned that the policy was likely illegal and would result in action from the attorney general’s office. In a letter sent to the school board before the July 20 board meeting, Bonta warned Shaw: “I will not hesitate to take action as appropriate to vigorously protect students’ civil rights.”

At the July 20 school board meeting CJ attended, Shaw ejected multiple people who opposed the bill, including district superintendent Tony Thurmond, who spoke out against the policy. CJ’s parents spoke out about the danger of the policy, and they too were thrown out.

“My husband and I were asked to leave the meeting for simply trying to stand up for our son,” Lisa told VICE News.

Over 80 people spoke during the heated meeting, many of them students from the district, who passionately and emotionally described the threat they’d face if the policy was enacted.

“This policy threatens my safety [and] tells me I don’t belong,” one student told the board. “Fifty-two percent of trans kids feel accepted at school, but only 35% feel accepted at home. That leaves a large gap there of kids who feel welcome at school but not at home. Feeling safe at school lessens suicide risk. If a student isn’t out to their parents, [this policy] shoves them in the closet at school. That’s a miserable place to be.”

In a letter to the board read out at the meeting, one trans student wrote: “If a student is outed to their family without their consent, this could possibly result in abuse, hate crimes, getting kicked out of their homes, [and] in extreme cases, being murdered.”

One Chino Valley Unified School District teacher put it bluntly: “This policy will out a student . . . putting them into a hostile household, which will further their mental degradation to the point where they will harm themselves. . .  This policy will kill somebody.”

Those who spoke in support of the policy claimed—falsely—that trans identity is a “mental illness,” a “delusion,” or a “damaging ideology.” Indeed, the school board members who voted in favor of the policy echoed these claims in their own comments, with one, Andrew Cruz, calling trans identity a “death culture” and bogusly claiming that “women are being erased.”

Cruz also suggested that “transgenderism” is part of a larger attack on the Christian values he believes should be at the center of U.S. society. 

​​“It’s not going to end with transgenderism,” he claimed. “You have got to put a stop to it.”

Don Bridge, a Democrat, was the lone dissenting voice on the board, asking: “What is going on at home if the child has not already shared this information with their parents? If this policy passes we will have effectively shut the down on students confiding to a staff member or teacher.”

“A national, coordinated effort”

The flood of anti-trans policies targeting schools emerged after years of influential right-wing pundits and organizations demonizing trans people as predators who threaten and seek to “convert” children. Public schools have been a major aspect of this campaign, and Republican legislatures nationwide have passed dozens of bills to strip information about gender identity and sexuality from public school curricula and libraries.

Last year, the influential right wing group the Heritage Foundation hosted an event titled “Protecting Our Children: How Radical Gender Ideology is Taking Over Public Schools & Harming Kids.” This year at the national summit of the extremist group Moms for Liberty in July, one of the topics discussed in breakout sessions was “Protecting Kids from Gender Ideology.” 

On stage at the conference, GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy called for “gender ideology” to be eradicated from schools. Presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also spoke at the conference and told the crowd how he had helped eradicate discussions around gender identity in schools, labeling it the “sexualization of our children.”  

There are now five states—Iowa, North Dakota, North Carolina, Indiana, and Alabama—where teachers are legally required to forcibly out their students. A new report from PEN America details how such bills have “exploded in popularity [and] “become part of a concerted national campaign.” Laws discriminating against LGBTQ students have been introduced or proposed in at least half the states in America since 2020, according to data gathered for the report.

But in states where Democrats control the legislature and such laws are unlikely to be passed due to Democrats controlling the legislature, there is a coordinated effort to push the very same policies at a local level. 

“This is part of a national, coordinated effort by right-wing extremists where they cut-and-paste these horrific policies, state-by-state, school district-by-school district, and we’ve seen it with trans restroom bills, with the Don’t Say Gay law, with laws banning gender-affirming care,” State Sen. Scott Wiener, who has vocally opposed the Chino Valley policy, told VICE News. “They used to do this with banning marriage equality, they did it with banning gay adoption. This is the tried-and-true playbook of the anti-LGBTQ right-wing where they come up with red meat for their base and they try to replicate it all over the country.” 

“This is the tried-and-true playbook of the anti-LGBTQ right-wing where they come up with red meat for their base and they try to replicate it all over the country.”

“We needed to do something to make support available”

After the policy impacting CJ and his friends passed, one of the parents who spoke out at the meeting knew that she needed to do something.

Kristi Hirst is a lifelong resident of Chino Valley. She attended 1st through 12th grades in Chino Valley Unified School District, was a teacher in the district for 14 years, and has three children attending school in the district. 

“I know this community, I know this district,” Hirst, who is the co-founder of the advocacy group OUR Schools USA, told VICE News last week. 

Hirst began strategizing and reached out to people she felt could help. One was Lance Preston, the founder and CEO of the Rainbow Youth Project, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

Hirst told Preston that the policy was having an immediate impact on the mental health of trans students in the district, including one student who had changed their pronouns in school last year but contacted Hirst desperately asking if they could change their record back because they were worried the school would report that.

“That’s when I realized that this was going to be a significant situation,” Preston told VICE News. “Researching it a little bit further, seeing the violence in the Temecula school board, it just all made sense that we needed to do something to make support available to these young people.”

In Temecula, an hour south of CJ’s school, a monthslong battle over textbooks referencing gay rights icon Harvey Milk had turned toxic, with the newly elected board president labeling Milk a pedophile and people showing up to meetings wearing Proud Boys attire.

Preston and the Rainbow Youth Project began planning the rollout of a hotline number for young people directly impacted by the CVUSD policy. By calling that number, students would reach a case management team from the Rainbow Youth Project who had been trained specifically to understand the new policy and its implications.

As it was not a crisis hotline, callers normally left a voicemail which was typically returned within 10 minutes of being received. “When those calls come in, if there is a significant or acute health crisis that is detected, those children are placed on a call with a licensed psychologist immediately,” Preston said.

The hotline went live on August 5 and in the space of just two weeks, 61 people rang the hotline, with almost all of them expressing a desire to relocate to a different school district More than two dozen of those who contacted the hotline screened positive for anxiety, Preston said, while 17 students screened positive for isolation.

“We did have one young person that was reporting some suicidal ideation,” Preston said. “That suicidal ideation was something they’d been experiencing prior to the policy but was exacerbated by the policy getting passed. That one child was placed in mental health counseling immediately.”

CJ told VICE News that his friend who was planning to take his own life because of the policy now speaks to a counselor from the Rainbow Youth Project every day, and CJ credits the group with saving his friend’s life.

Despite the volume of calls received, Shaw called the hotline as “dangerous” though admitted she didn’t understand how the hotline worked. When asked if the 61 students contacting the service in the space of two weeks was evidence that the new policy was directly impacting the students in her district, she said: “No.”

While working on the hotline, Pretson and Hirst also launched a joint campaign with their groups to ask Bonta, the attorney general, to launch an investigation into the policy.

On the day before the hotline went live, Bonta announced that his office was investigating the legality and effect of the new policy. Unlike Shaw, the attorney general’s office sought out the people who were impacted by the policy.

One of those students told Bonta that they attended the July 20 meeting and felt as if one board member “was speaking to us, the trans kids in the audience. . . . like he wanted us to know that we were an illness that needed to be cured. That we needed to be exterminated.”

Bonta filed the lawsuit against the Chino Valley Unified School District on August 28, writing that the policy “has singled out an especially vulnerable group of children and youth for discriminatory treatment: transgender and gender nonconforming students,” adding that “the Board’s plain motivations in adopting [this policy] were to create and harbor animosity, discrimination, and prejudice towards these transgender and gender nonconforming students, without any compelling reason to do so.”

Bonta believes that because similar policies in other school districts are copycat versions of the Chino Valley policy, they too will be suspended.

But despite Wednesday’s ruling, this is not the end of the battle over the rights of trans students in California.

Within hours of the attorney general announcing his lawsuit last week, a group called Protect Kids California announced a trio of ballot initiatives designed to undermine trans rights in the state. As well as attempting to enshrine the forced outing of students in law, the group is also seeking to ban trans youth from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity, and ban gender affirming care for trans youth—services associated with a 73% reduction in suicidality.

In order to get the proposals on the ballot in 2024, the group needs to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures by next May, which is highly unlikely in the deeply blue state. However, simply proposing these new initiatives will keep people talking about this issue.

“I think that they see where this is headed and they want to keep this narrative in the spotlight to keep people voting in 2024 because they think it’s an issue that they are getting support on,” Hirst said.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the state legislature are already drafting new legislation that will seek to enshrine protections for trans people in law, though if it passes, that legislation won’t go into effect until 2024 at the earliest. 

CJ returned to school on the first day of classes in August, having briefly considered enrolling somewhere else. But after just a few hours, the atmosphere of fear induced by the new policy was too much.

“I called my mom at lunch to come get me,” CJ said. “I was already done. I was already finished. It was just too much and I’ve never felt like that at school.” CJ describes an atmosphere of fear and tension among the students and teachers, who he says don’t know how to protect both their trans students and their jobs.

The impact of the anti-trans policy on CJ was “immeasurable” said Lisa, CJ’s mother, adding that her son is no longer willing to go out in public on his own, worried about what harassment he will face. “As a parent that makes you feel like a failure because you can’t always protect them from other children, but you should be able to protect them from other adults.”

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