For Transgender and Nonbinary Protections, California Came First

6 min
Dee Shull is excited to to update their California driver's license with a nonbinary gender marker on Jan. 1, 2019.  (Lesley McClurg/KQED)

It's easy to spot Dee Shull in a coffee shop in San Leandro: Shull is wearing a bright green T-shirt with big block letters reading, "Too queer for your binary."

Shull is also clutching a purple purse with many colorful political statements, including one that says "They/Them" — which are Shull's preferred pronouns.

Like others who identify as nonbinary, gender-nonconforming or gender-queer, Shull's internal experience is somewhere along the gender spectrum rather than either male or female.

“My gender today is definitely kind of middle of the road," Shull says. "What I tend to call a yes and gender.”

After sipping on an iced coffee, Shull heads to the coffee shop's restroom.

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“Their single-occupancy restrooms are marked 'all-gender' restrooms," Shull says. "It's one of the reasons I like this coffee shop."

Gender-Neutral Bathrooms

Shull remembers how much of a relief it was when the state's groundbreaking bathroom law went into effect last year. California was the first state in the nation to require all public restrooms be updated with a single toilet or urinal to be labeled gender-neutral.

"I'm not sitting there looking back and forth between the two of them going, 'Which one do I use?' " Shull says, smiling.

DMV Adds Nonbinary Box

Shull is also taking advantage of another recent law that allows residents to change their gender and name to align with their desired gender. They are thrilled that their name will no longer be a "preferred" name — it will soon be a legal name.

“You know, if I'm trending more masculine it could just be the initial D," says Shull. "If I’m trending more feminine, it will match what will be on my license, which is D-E-E.”

Shull plans to head to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a new license on Jan. 1. That’s when a third gender option will be available on state-issued identity documents, including birth certificates. California was the first state to pass a law offering a third gender option: X.

“I cannot even handle the feeling of correctness and validation without just going out and partying a little bit about it," laughs Shull.

There’s a lot to celebrate, says Christy Mallory, state and local policy director at the Williams Institute, a gender-identity think tank at UCLA.

“Many people don't even think about how often they pull out their driver's license or show it," says Mallory. "But just think about what that would mean if your driver's license did not accurately reflect who you are. Think about the types of fear you'd have in going out and using that ID, especially in certain circumstances like voting, serving as a juror, applying for a job or getting an apartment."

2017 law also requires employers to train supervisors on how to identify and prevent harassment based on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, Mallory says. Employees are taught how to use appropriate pronouns and create inclusive dress codes.

Youth Protections

An increasing number of policies protecting transgender and nonbinary children are in place in the Golden State, too. California is the only state to mandate access to gender-affirming health care, which includes mental health care, for transgender foster youth. The 2018 law includes access to medical services like counseling, hormone therapy and surgery.

Diane Ehrensaft, director of mental health at UCSF's Child and Adolescent Gender Center, noted landmark 2013 legislation allows children to use the bathroom, locker room — or participate on whichever sports team — they believe matches their gender identity.

“That makes a tremendous difference in someone’s gender being accepted, supported and protected all at the same time," says Ehrensaft.

Max, 13 years old, identifies as agender — neither male nor female. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Over the past five years in her practice, Ehrensaft says she has witnessed kids' self-esteem rise. Take 15-year-old Max, for example, who identifies as nonbinary. Before the public school law took effect, Max used to use the boy's room but only during class, when it was less crowded, and only when desperate.

“And sometimes I just wouldn’t use the bathroom all day," says Max, whose last name is not being used for his protection.

The girls' room wasn’t an option either because Max always had a sinking feeling they were in the wrong place.

“You know I’m not supposed to be here. There’s something in your stomach — this just doesn’t feel right.”

Max now attends a school in Oakland that has a gender-neutral bathroom, which more and more California schools are providing.

Not Just Laws

In addition to innovative state policies, there are also unique services for California families with transgender children. Ehrensaft counsels some of these children in her highly progressive clinic. “We are definitely seeing children as young as 3, 4 and 5 years old who are socially transitioning from the gender everybody thought they were to the gender they say they are."

Gracie, 7, poses for a picture in her room. Gracie is transgender; she socially transitioned to a girl at the age of 4. (Lauren Hanussak/KQED)

Ehrensaft helps families navigate social changes like name changes and new attire, activities or toys that allow a child to live in the gender that feels most authentic to them. A social transition does not include any medical interventions.

Seven-year-old Gracie remembers what it was like when people treated her like a boy even though she felt like a girl.

“It was not right to me, and I didn’t want people to say that, but they said it," cringes Gracie. "It hurted my feelings a lot."

She started socially transitioning from a boy to a girl when she was 3.

Did it make her angry?

“No, it just made me sad.”

How about now?

“It feels happy to me.”

At the end of the day, those are the magic words most parents desperately want to hear. Ehrensaft says she is working with more and more families who have recently moved from other parts of the U.S. to California in hopes of finding a more supportive environment for gender-expansive children.

“We are getting an influx of families who want to be here because it is the best fertilizer for their children," says Ehrensaft.

Backlash

California’s policies are not without controversy. There is a fierce debate over whether to help children socially transition their gender at young ages.

“This has just been a breeding ground for a gender revolution," says Ehrensaft. "So people either love it or hate us for it."

Liberal hubs like Washington or Oregon tend to follow California's lead. Both states recently passed rules allowing for a third-gender option on identity documents.

“As California passes new laws that protect LGBTQ people, we see two things happen across the country," says Samuel Garrett-Pate, spokesman for Equality California, an advocacy organization supporting LGBTQ people. "First, we see a lot of states follow in our footsteps. We saw that on our ban on conversion therapy several years ago. But we also see some states move in the opposite direction, unfortunately.”

This year, numerous states introduced anti-transgender legislation that would restrict bathroom access, allow discrimination in the adoption process or limit transgender students' rights at school. Even though most of these bills are either currently inactive or failed, Garrett-Pate expects discriminatory policies to continue to gain traction in conservative pockets of the country.

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