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California Democrats Search for 'Counter' to Transgender Reporting Policies

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A person holds a sign above their head that reads "protect all kids" in a crowded indoor space.
A person holds a sign in opposition to a policy that the Chino Valley school board is meeting to vote on which would require school staff to 'out' students to their parents if they ask to be identified by a gender that is not listed on their birth certificate, in Chino, San Bernardino County, on July 20, 2023. (David McNew/Getty Images)

When California’s top education official, Tony Thurmond, showed up at a local school board meeting in Chino this summer, he was ready for a fight.

But this conservative school board was ready, too.

Like dozens of local school board candidates across the state, their president and other members were backed by both local religious leaders and national far-right groups. Frustrated by the domination of California Democrats in Sacramento and around the state, those groups have focused not on electing state lawmakers or even local city leaders, but instead on putting conservative majorities on local school boards.

In Chino, that resulted in a ban on the pride flag and then, this summer, a policy to require teachers and school staff to alert parents if a student requests to be “identified or treated” as a gender other than the one listed on their birth certificate.

Some supporters argue the policy is necessary to keep parents abreast of what their kids are doing at school, while others have gone further to suggest that teachers are pushing students to change their gender identities.

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When Thurmond, who this week announced his bid for governor in the 2026 race, showed up to the board meeting in San Bernardino County to voice his opposition to the notification proposal, he was berated by board president Sonja Shaw. That evening, Chino Valley Unified School District passed the transgender reporting policy, which has now been adopted by a half-dozen districts across California.

Now, Democrats are grappling with how to respond. While party leaders like Thurmond have spoken out strongly against the transgender notification policies — and the state attorney general is suing the district over its policy — the state Legislature recently ended its annual session without any concrete action on the parental notification issue. Lawmakers have also acknowledged the challenge of crafting responses on a fast-moving issue largely playing out on the local level. When recently asked if he thinks Democrats were caught off guard by the push, Thurmond was blunt.

California Superintendent Tony Thurmond is pictured speaking from a wooden podium. He has a business suit and black face mask on. It's daytime.
California Superintendent Tony Thurmond told KQED that Democrats and progressives need to come up with ways to counter what some are calling anti-trans policies throughout California that focus on LGBTQ students. Thurmond recently showed up to a school board meeting in San Bernardino County to voice his opposition to a transgender reporting policy, which has now been adopted by a half-dozen districts across California. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I think the short answer is yes,” he said on KQED’s Political Breakdown. “This is a scripted playbook. It is a nationally driven playbook by groups that have been losing at the ballot box in congressional races, and [for] the White House and in state legislatures. And they’ve made a decision that they’re going to wage war at the local level, at the school district level and the school board. And so, Democrats and progressives and others need to come back with ways to counter this.”

But countering what backers frame not as anti-trans policies, but simply “parental rights” is proving to be a more politically fraught conversation for Democrats than other conservative culture crusades, such as banning books or restricting abortion.

And Gov. Gavin Newsom — who normally relishes his role publicly baiting Republicans for issues he sees as politically expedient for the left — has acknowledged the political minefield that issues involving transgender students present for Democrats.

While broadly defending transgender kids, the governor has also, at times, acknowledged the nuance of an issue that intersects with not one, but two, thorny political questions: One, the public’s general uneasiness with transgender issues, which were not even part of the broader political debate a few years ago. And two, the public support for including parents in conversations about their kids.

Late last week, Newsom signed a bill requiring all public schools to have at least one gender-neutral bathroom, but vetoed legislation requiring courts to consider a parent’s affirmation of their child’s gender identity in custody and visitation decisions.

At a recent onstage interview with Politico, Newsom mocked Republican leaders for focusing on transgender kids over issues like academics and for obsessively talking about a group that makes up just a tiny fraction of the population. But he also said, that after talking to parents, he gets why they’re angry.

“I totally understand why you were out there. If I were told those things, I would’ve been out there too,” he said. “People are being ginned up. And so, I’m not here to criticize them, but there’s a lot of misunderstanding, misrepresentation out there because people are weaponizing these grievances against vulnerable communities.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is pictured speaking from a podium inside a conference room.
Gov. Newsom signed Senate Bill 760 on Saturday, Sept. 23, that requires all public schools to have at least 1 gender-neutral bathroom. Newsom later vetoed legislation requiring courts to consider a parent’s affirmation of their child’s gender identity in custody and visitation decisions. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At the state Capitol, Democrats lambasted the transgender reporting policies as an affront to student privacy that will potentially endanger kids and thrust teachers into the middle of delicate family conversations. A direct legislative response, however, was constrained by both the Capitol calendar and the power local governments have over decision-making in California schools.

When the Temecula Valley Unified School District in Riverside County voted earlier this year to ban curriculum materials that referenced gay rights leader Harvey Milk, the state Legislature fired back, passing a bill to prevent book banning in the state. Newsom signed that bill Monday.

But that legislation was the product of months of compromise — which led to the removal of language placing tougher restrictions on districts, in the face of opposition from the group representing California school boards.

When the transgender reporting policies began to proliferate this summer, Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San José) said his colleagues in the Legislative LGBTQ caucus had conversations with fellow Democrats and the Newsom administration about a legislative response, but decided that more time was needed to craft a bill that could pass legal muster.

“We’re really playing kind of a whack-a-mole approach to it — when they come up with new ways to hurt LGBTQ families and kids, we have to make sure we are approaching it with much more sensitivity and much more nuance,” Lee said. “So, there is more time and delay when we’re coming up with [a] new policy.”

Lee vowed “quick, decisive action” on the issue when the Legislature reconvenes in January, though he acknowledged a political response on the local level will be critical as LGBTQ rights debates continue to serve as flashpoints in districts up and down the state.

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“I really hope that folks will take that to heart and really get involved in local school districts,” Lee added. “Local control does matter, so it really matters who actually runs for school board, who’s involved in that process.”

In Chino, the board was swung toward a conservative majority in last year’s election through the organizing work of the California Republican Party and Real Impact, a political group run by local pastor Jack Hibbs.

Chino’s transgender reporting policy followed a ban on the display of certain flags, including the LGBTQ pride flag. The moves came after a series of tense meetings marked by personal attacks and heightened rhetoric. On both issues, the lone dissenting vote on the five-member board was cast by Donald Bridge, the former president of the local teachers union.

Opponents of the policies pushed by the board majority worry this year’s raucous debates could stymie efforts to reverse the political balance of the board in the future.

“When potential candidates look at what he’s going through, are they going to jump in? I wouldn’t,” said Brenda Walker, current president of the Associated Chino Teachers union. “So, yes, it’s going to be difficult to find candidates.”

Walker said her members have already noticed a chilling effect on both students and teachers compared to last school year.

For now, the concerns are moot: A superior court judge in San Bernardino County has put Chino’s transgender notification policy on hold after California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a lawsuit arguing the policy violates the privacy rights of students.

But supporters of similar policies are hoping to expand their campaign beyond this initial series of local skirmishes.

Nearly two dozen conservative and religious groups, including Real Impact, have formed the Coalition for Parental Rights, to encourage more California school districts to adopt transgender reporting policies.

Some members of that group are also attempting to qualify three statewide initiatives for the November ballot: a transgender notification law, a ban on transgender students from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity, and a ban on puberty blockers and sexual reassignment surgery for minors.

Erin Friday, who heads the group Our Duty, and who is sponsoring the notification ballot measure, said she’s turning to California voters after a similar policy was blocked by the state Legislature.

“They’re ignoring [us] and saying that we’re right-wing bigots,” Friday said. “And that’s just not true. We’re parents who are safeguarding the bodily integrity of our children.”

If the transgender reporting law qualifies for the ballot, progressives would be wise to define the effort as an attack on LGBTQ children, said GOP consultant Rob Stutzman.

“To the extent that it starts to become a backlash to LGBTQ citizens, that’s not going to fly in California,” Stutzman said. “But if voters are presented with a specific question about, you know, ‘Should parents be notified if their minor child identifies as transgender?’ I think that’s likely to pass. Now, the people running the campaign could be distasteful enough that it clouds out the actual policy question before them.”

Those who have been involved in education leadership say that while the details of the current dustup are new, the broad contours are not.

Camille Maben served on the Rocklin School Board for nearly 30 years, starting in the early 1990s. She recalled a debate 20 years ago over sex education curriculum at the board that also made national headlines. The conservative majority at the time, she said, voted to institute an “abstinence only” curriculum — and were promptly voted out of power in the next election. The new board repealed the abstinence-only class in lieu of a more “well-rounded” approach.

“What it did really was kind of reset our community’s look at education … and work to have a board that was balanced, that put students first always,” she said. “When an issue takes off and becomes part of a bigger conversation or agenda … it’s easy to lose sight of … you’re locally elected to serve the people within your community and do your best for those people.”

Maben said the current debate seems strikingly similar. Rocklin’s new conservative majority recently passed a policy nearly identical to the Chino Hills one, also requiring school staff to notify parents of a change to a kid’s gender status. Teachers and others are already planning to sue.

Mabel said in any community, school board members would do well to listen to the entire community — not just their allies. If they don’t, she said, each community has recourse.

The process we have in place, not only locally, but as a country, is if you really don’t like it, no matter what side you’re on, then when it comes time for election, you change that. And you elect someone else. That’s the process we have. That’s how democracy works,” she said.

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