Nov. 9, 2023
Forced outing policies aren’t just harmful, they’re illegal
Chino Valley Unified School District’s policy and other similar ones target transgender and nonbinary students, in violation of the equal protection clause of our state constitution and California’s statutes barring discrimination in public education and government-funded programs, and they also violate students’ constitutionally protected privacy rights.
Choosing when to come out and to whom is a deeply personal decision that all LGBTQ people deserve to make for themselves. But recently, a rash of California public school districts have adopted policies requiring school personnel to “out” students to their parents if they appear to be exploring a transgender or nonbinary identity, regardless of safety or other concerns the students express. Such policies harm everyone – students, their parents and families, and school staff – by removing opportunities to build trust. They also violate California’s Constitution and civil rights laws. Fortunately, the California Department of Justice has taken decisive enforcement action against the Chino Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) on this issue and secured a preliminary injunction, which is helping to stem the tide and protect young people against further harm.
A number of other districts, from Orange, Murrieta, and Temecula in Southern California to Clovis in the Central Valley and Rocklin and others in Northern California, have also adopted policies like CVUSD’s in the past few months. Although proponents at times claim these policies promote support for transgender students, they really are part of the nationwide and global campaign to drive people who defy stereotyped gender expectations back into a dangerous closet, exploit widespread lack of familiarity with transgender and nonbinary people’s experiences to score political points, and deny and censor the lived experiences of LGBTQ people as well as people of color. The deluge of more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced across the country this year, including state-level forced outing efforts as well as bans on gender-affirming health care, access to gender-appropriate restrooms, and so forth, has had a measurable negative impact on the mental health of LGBTQ youth.
Ideally, trans and nonbinary youth would feel comfortable being open with their families, and many parents and guardians do quickly respond with compassion, acceptance, and support when their child comes out. But unfortunately, not all young people are able to be their authentic selves at home safely. Some parents respond to news that their child is transgender with verbal abuse, withdrawal of material support, futile and harmful attempts to change their child’s gender identity through “conversion therapy,” or even violence. Indeed, transgender young people report being more likely to find affirming spaces at school (52%) than at home (35%). Moreover, as has long been the case for young people coming out as gay or grappling with questions of faith, academic and career decisions, or other personal issues, talking to peers and to trusted adults at school are often key steps toward feeling ready to have what can be an intimidating conversation with one’s parents. Policies that forcibly “out” pupils without their consent remove opportunities for young people to build up trust and confidence and discuss their gender with family when they are ready and in ways that strengthen the relationship between parent and child.
In contrast to their purported purpose of supporting students, forced outing policies make it harder for gender-diverse youth to thrive. Students in CVUSD and other districts have decried the chilling effect such policies have on efforts to seek out affirming resources at school, especially among those youth who lack support at home and are thus most vulnerable to struggling with their mental health and suicidality. Students and educators alike have also noted that such policies significantly impair transgender and nonbinary young people’s ability to feel safe in the school environment and focus on learning.
Attorney General Rob Bonta launched an investigation of CVUSD shortly after its board of trustees adopted the forced outing policy and filed suit against the district in San Bernardino Superior Court in August 2023. The complaint lays out why CVUSD’s policy is harmful and illegal: it targets transgender and nonbinary students, in violation of the equal protection clause of our state constitution and California’s statutes barring discrimination in public education and government-funded programs, and it also violates students’ constitutionally protected privacy rights. The state’s filing included declarations detailing firsthand the policy’s negative effects on students who were no longer comfortable expressing themselves authentically at school, teachers who had tried to be available for students who needed a supportive listening ear, and parents who wanted school to feel like a safe place for their children and for all students. A Stanford-affiliated psychology expert also submitted a declaration detailing how the policy “contributes to a harmful school climate, which negatively impacts LGBTQ youths mentally, socially, and academically.” A temporary restraining order blocking the policy’s enforcement was granted in September, and on Oct. 19, Judge Michael Sachs granted a preliminary injunction, noting that the policy “is discriminatory on its face.”
The ACLU Foundations of Northern and Southern California submitted an amicus brief in support of the state’s motion for preliminary injunction on behalf of 25 organizations working in the areas of LGBTQ community and youth support, legal services, and civil rights. The brief highlights relevant social science research, including the 30% lower rate of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth who have at least one accepting adult in their life (whether at home, at school, or elsewhere). It also uplifts the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth who have been forced to leave home because of a lack of family acceptance of their identity. Like our co-signers, including partners at fellow advocacy organizations like Lambda Legal and Transgender Law Center, youth support organizations like the Trevor Project and Rainbow Pride Youth Alliance, and LGBTQ community centers around the state, we are grateful for the court’s intervention to alleviate harm to CVUSD students. We continue to work on raising awareness statewide as to why such policies are both constitutionally infirm and harmful to students in need of understanding and resources. Young people from all walks of life deserve to feel safe, supported, and affirmed at school – and transgender and nonbinary students are no different.