Politics & Government

Dan Walters: California once again in vortex of culture war

So once again, California voters will find themselves at the vortex of the culture war.

Just as the state was ground zero for the years-long struggle over same-sex marriage, it now will be the battlefield as many of the same warriors clash over the legal rights of transgender students.

The issue is a new state law that would allow public school students the right to self-designate their gender orientation, regardless of their inborn biological attributes, and be treated accordingly in gender-defined activities.

Opponents, many of them veterans of the same-sex marriage battle, say they have gathered enough signatures to challenge the law via a referendum ballot measure next year.

Frank Schubert, who managed the successful anti-gay-marriage ballot measure drive in California, only to see it overturned in the federal courts, is the primary organizer of the referendum.

Opponents raise the specter of mixed-gender locker rooms and restrooms and allowing biological males to compete in girls’ sports, or vice versa.

Their rivals, many of them also veterans of marriage wars, see the legislation as a landmark victory for equal rights and protecting transgender students from harassment.

Leading opposition to the referendum is Equality California, which was deeply involved in the gay marriage battle and sponsored the new law on transgender student rights, Assembly Bill 1266, carried by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco.

Ironically, the announcement that more than 600,000 signatures had been gathered for a referendum occurred just days after 18-year-old Luke Fleischman, who was born male but identifies himself as gender-neutral, had his skirt set afire as he was sleeping on an Oakland bus and suffered severe burns.

A 16-year-old, Richard Thomas, was charged with several felonies for the attack after telling police that he committed the attack “because he was homophobic,” according to the criminal complaint.

The fears of the new law’s opponents about gender-mixing in the schools and the savage attack on Fleischman form the parameters of the forthcoming battle.

Predicting the outcome is difficult because it involves emotion, deeply held cultural values on both sides and ever-evolving public attitudes about gender.

By the time the gay marriage ban was overturned, the state’s voters had themselves evolved from opposition to acceptance. And although it remains offensive to many, there’s no evidence that allowing same-sex marriages has had the horrendous effects its opponents predicted.

While opponents of the new transgender law are convinced that it, too, would cause great societal harm, perhaps it will merely allow a relative handful of youngsters like Luke Fleischman to live their lives without fear.