SACRAMENTO — It seems pretty simple: If a student has male genitalia, the kid uses the boys' bathroom. If there are female organs, then it's the girls' room.
But what if the student wears a skirt, makeup and lipstick, and has a penis? Which restroom then?
California voters may be asked to answer that question next year in the November election.
And it's not really so simple after all. What if a kid with a penis is standing at the boys' urinal wearing a dress and a pretty hair bow?
"That just causes commotion," says Wendy Hill, a state Assembly staffer who helped guide a new transgender-rights law through the Legislature. "It opens up to bullying."
A student who looks like a girl, Hill adds, "feels safer going into a stall in the girls' restroom."
If you think all of this is silly, you're not alone. That's probably most voters' view. Doesn't Sacramento have more important problems to solve?
Maybe not if you're a transgender kid whose gender identity doesn't conform to your sex organs of birth.
Admittedly I'm way out of my league here, like most people are on this topic.
Let's back up.
In July, the Legislature passed AB 1266, by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and participate on sports teams that match the gender they feel identifies them.
The measure could not have passed without overwhelming Democratic dominance of the Legislature. It barely cleared the Senate and was approved by a small margin in the Assembly, where the speaker is gay.
All the "yes" votes were cast by Democrats. A dozen Democrats simply ducked the vote. Two voted "no." All Republicans opposed it except four who abstained.
"Transgender individuals have had to suffer through some of the worst indignities and personal problems of anybody in our society," Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) told a KNBC-TV interviewer. "This bill is about making sure there is a safe place for [transgender] kids to fully participate in their schools."
Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill.
For many, this merely amounts to more liberal excess in Sacramento.
A conservative coalition has mounted a drive to repeal the measure in the 2014 general election. It needs to collect about 505,000 valid voter signatures by Nov. 8 — roughly 700,000 in all to be safe.
Nearly 500,000 have been collected so far, says political consultant Frank Schubert, who five years ago masterminded the passage of Proposition 8, the contentious initiative that banned same-sex marriage. Federal courts overturned it.
The transgender law is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. But if the referendum qualifies for the ballot, the law will be suspended until voters decide.
"It's an uphill battle to get the signatures," Schubert says. Volunteers are out in droves, he reports, but another $300,000 needs to be raised — on top of $250,000 already donated — to hire professional signature collectors.
"Our challenge is to get on the ballot," Schubert says. "If we do, I don't think we'll have a great deal of difficulty winning the campaign. Most people I talk to can't believe they did this. What were they thinking? To say that we need to open up our school showers and bathrooms just doesn't make sense."
But Hill, the legislative staffer who also does private transgender counseling, says the common fear that a boy could be showering with girls, or vice versa, is outdated. Public schools generally haven't had open showers for many years, she says.
They can't afford the water, the towels or the janitorial service, she asserts, "and most important, they don't want to be responsible for watching all the naked minors" and worrying about accusations of teacher molestation. "In some schools that still have showers, they're single-stalled, with curtains."
"They have bathrooms and changing areas," Schubert counters. "Kids are going to be exposed."
Hill, a lesbian, responds that "the very last thing" transgender children want to expose is their genitalia: "It gives them away." They're not old enough to have had transgender surgery.
But wouldn't some straight boys fake it just to get their jollies in the girls' bathroom? Hill dismisses that notion.
She notes that Los Angeles and San Francisco schools have had transgender policies similar to AB 1266 for years and haven't reported any major problems.
To be considered transgender, she says, a student must be living the gender daily — not just momentarily wearing a bra to ogle girls in the bathroom, or to land on the girls' volleyball team where the boy could be a star.
In schools that don't have AB 1266 policies, Hill says, "some transgender students just don't go to the bathroom. They hold it all day long. There are higher incidences of urinary tract infections. They don't eat breakfast — the most important meal of the day — or even drink water in order to avoid going to the bathroom. Dehydrated, hungry kids aren't learning as well. They cut school and even leave school."
But Schubert says "the intensity of opinion is clearly" on his side. He cites a campaign poll that shows voters overwhelmingly rejecting the new law.
Republican consultant Rob Stutzman — merely looking at the politics, not the policy — thinks that the ballot measure "would pass by a significant margin. It's hard for people to look at this and understand why we're further complicating our school environment. On the face, it sounds crazy.
"What are the rights of the straight student?"
Good question. But maybe many students today are more tolerant than in previous generations.
Maybe if a student dresses like a girl, she should use the girls' bathroom.