What I Learned From Transgender Students

When I saw Ashton Lee, a 16-year-old transgender student from Manteca, California, deliver over 5,700 petitions to Gov. Jerry Brown in support of a law that makes sure he can just be himself at school, I knew I was seeing something special -- a brave, committed transgender student taking charge of his future. By taking charge of an issue that shaped their own lives, transgender students like Ashton provided an example for the rest of us.

Since January 1, transgender students in California have been supported by a new law, The California School Success and Opportunity Act -- called Assembly Bill 1266 -- which helps to ensure they have the same opportunity as any other kid to do well in school and graduate. The law faced a potential referendum, until the Secretary of State recently announced that opponents had failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Out of that referendum attempt, however, came a new wave of bold, empowered transgender youth. This law passed, and was affirmed, because transgender students and their families put a face to an issue. They rallied their schools and communities with great success. Schools are now working with families and kids to implement AB 1266, and support all students. The law is providing important guidance to schools, modeled after policies and practices that are already working well in other schools in the state.

I was lucky to be able to spend time over the past year with transgender students and their families, like 16-year-old Ashton, and his mom, Cathy, who live in the Central Valley. Ashton is just a nice kid, a teenage boy with the same interests of other teenage boys, from sports to friends to school. He was having problems at school, however, when assigned to the girls' gym class. After learning about AB 1266, his school administrators met with him and his parents and made a plan for him to join the boys' PE class. Now Ashton is happy and doing well at school. Zoey is a 12-year-old transgender girl in the Los Angeles area. Her mom, Ofelia, says that AB 1266 makes it so much easier for her daughter to go to school. The law has been helpful, because of more inclusive policies put in place by principals and teachers.

The bravery of real people like these kids and their parents inspired supporters from within the LGBT community -- and outside of it as well -- to join them. Nearly a hundred organizations, educators, family members and friends stood up for and stood alongside with these kids. They were moved to support the notion that every students deserves an opportunity to do well in school and graduate.

These youth know how difficult the task at hand is. Understanding what it means to be transgender is new for many people in our society and can be confusing. That's not surprising, because many people are unaware of the issues transgender people face.

That lack of awareness is why transgender students had to be the face of their own campaign. Until someone meets and knows a young transgender person, their humanity will be elusive. But up-close, in person, taking responsibility for their own education, their humanity cannot be denied.

These transgender students didn't just protect a law. They empowered themselves and stepped boldly into the public, bringing the rest of us along with them. That's bigger than this law -- it's an inspiration for all of us.