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    LGBTQ students on new school rules: ‘It’s clear our lives aren’t important’
    • August 28, 2023

    Willow Scharf wanted her senior year of high school to be “normal.” No fear of judgment or attack.

    “We are children,” said Scharf, 17. “We deserve a fun high school experience.”

    This year is her last at Great Oak High School in Temecula. But rather than spend the year planning for college, prom and graduation nights, Scharf and other LGBTQ students across Southern California are worrying about their local school boards.

    Scharf identifies as non-binary and bisexual. Since the 2022 election of a new Temecula Valley Unified school board, Scharf said she has “never felt more unsafe” as a Temecula Valley student. The board tried to block a social studies curriculum that mentioned LGBTQ icon Harvey Milk. It’s now considering a policy requiring school officials to tell parents if their children identify themselves as transgender.

    “We’re angry at the school board for thinking they could take advantage of us,” Scharf said. “This is our education – we’re not going to let them censor it because we deserve the best.”

    The moves in Temecula Valley Unified are among a growing number of actions by school boards and others that alarm LGBTQ students and their allies:

    Chino Valley Unified and Murrieta Unified have adopted policies requiring parental notification about students not conforming to the gender they were assigned at birth, and the Orange Unified school board is considering adopting the policy in September.

    • Earlier this year, Chino Valley Unified prohibited teachers from displaying pride flags in their classrooms. Police had to break up a brawl between protesters and counterprotesters outside a Glendale Unified school board meeting where board members were scheduled to vote on a resolution expressing support for Pride Month.

    • And on Tuesday, Aug. 22, parental notification backers were met by LGBTQ supporters as they rallied in Los Angeles, objecting to bills in the California Legislature they see as taking away parental rights, including the right to be notified about their children’s gender expression.

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    ‘An awful climate’

    Scharf remembers being called a “monster” at a Temecula City Council meeting. She was 15 at the time.

    “The only hate I’d ever faced was from kids who don’t think for themselves yet. But here, there were adults who spoke so horribly to me,” Scharf said.

    “I’m not somebody who has hate in their heart,” she added. “I don’t understand how you can hate someone just because you don’t understand what they’re going through.”

    Like Scharf, many LGBTQ students and those who support them are returning to school campus environments that have changed in the past year — and not for the better, they say.

    “My educator friends are fearful; they know they had better not discuss any of this,” said Mitch Rosen, a family therapist in Temecula. “Educators are told ‘you will not go there.’ … It’s an awful climate.”

    Policies requiring school employees to tell parents if their child identifies themselves by a gender other than what they were assigned at birth echo Assembly Bill 1314. The bill, co-sponsored by Assemblymember Bill Essalyi, R-Riverside, died without making it to the Assembly floor for a vote. But local school boards have been trying to pass their own versions ever since.

    “These policies are cruel, requiring young people to choose between the anxiety and distress of not being able to be their authentic selves at school and the fear of being outed at home before they are ready or safe to do so,” Gabriel Vidal, associate director for Youth Organizing of California for the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network (formerly the Gay-Straight Alliance Network), wrote in an email.

    Concerns about safety

    Policies like AB 1314 have been framed as giving parents the information they need to raise their children.

    “We have no business affirming anything without the parents’ permission or knowledge,” Chino Valley Unified school board president Sonja Shaw said in June. “We’re not denying anybody anything, or any access to any kind of programs, any kind of sports teams. (The) policy doesn’t deny access. It’s not discriminating them to any kind of access.”

    But transgender teens say the policies are dangerous.

    If parents don’t know that their child is transgender or gender non-conforming, there’s often good reason for that, according to Max Ibarra, a 17-year-old junior in Chino Valley Unified who uses the pronoun they.

    “Being a trans kid that’s not out yet, you can get a feeling about whether or not your family will be supportive of that,” they said. “And how do we do that? We pay attention to the comments that our family members make when other trans people in our lives come out. We see them grab the remote to change the channel when trans people come on.

    “Sometimes, people can assess the situation as unsafe,” Ibarra added. “To be able to stay safe, we have to stay in the closet at home. If we get outed, that can lead to abuse at home. There are people who would rather have a dead child than a trans child.”

    Rosen, the family therapist in Temecula, says that’s true.

    “I’ve had parents who tell their kids ‘you’re dead to me,’ which is a terrible thing to hear as a 13-year-old child,” Rosen said.

    He hears from parents who want him to recommend conversion therapy for their LGBTQ children. Rosen says such treatment — which is illegal in California — doesn’t work and is unethical.

    “So then the parents say ‘Well, I’m going to get a therapist with their head screwed on straight’ and they hang up. And that’s the kiss of death for those young people,” Rosen said.

    ‘Our lives aren’t important enough’

    According a 2023 survey conducted by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ young people, only 38% of LGBTQ kids responding to the survey said their home was gender-affirming. Of those surveyed, 41% reported they’d considered suicide in the past year. The rates were even higher among transgender, non-binary and people of color responding to the survey.

    According to the same survey, about one in three respondents said their mental health was poor because of policies and legislation targeting the LGBTQ community.

    Daniel Mora, 18, left, a former student of the Chino Valley Unified School District, and Max Ibarra, 17, currently enrolled in the district, come together to share their experiences as LGBTQ students in local schools amidst a changing political climate that poses challenges for LGBTQ students, in Chino on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

    The school boards “know what they’re doing is dangerous,” Ibarra said. “They’ve had students point it out to them. They’ve had human rights groups point it out to them. They’ve had statistics presented to them multiple times. The message is very clear that what they’re doing is dangerous. And by passing policies like this, it’s very clear that our lives aren’t important enough to them to be worth protecting.”

    The new political climate also means less tolerance for school clubs that bring together and provide support for LGBTQ students, according to Vidal with the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network.

    “Clubs continue as best as they can to meet and create supportive and affirming meeting spaces for students during these times,” he said.

    ‘It’s not about sex’

    But not every school district in the region is becoming more restrictive in the treatment of LGBTQ issues.

    On Aug. 1, the Corona-Norco Unified school board passed a resolution “recognizing the plight of LGBTQ+ staff and students.”

    And the brawl that happened outside a Glendale Unified school board meeting earlier this year is not reflective of what’s happening in district schools, according to Deborah Pasachoff, a mother with GUSD Parents for Public Schools.

    “Nothing really has changed,” with district policy or what’s being taught in Glendale classrooms, she said. “Here, we’ve managed to keep our kids relatively safe and insulated from the hatred going on in other districts.”

    Pasachoff blames the chaos at the June school board meeting on a social media misinformation campaign accusing the district of Marxist indoctrination, sexually explicit education, and protesting against LGBTQ events, including the school board expressing support for Pride Month.

    Pride Month “shouldn’t be controversial,” Pasachoff said.

    “It’s not about sex. It’s saying we’re going to respect a large number of Americans and people in our community,” she said.

    Gris Soriano has two children enrolled in Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified schools — including a transgender son.

    According to Soriano, a member of PFLAG, a national organization that provides support for families with people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, the Yucaipa-Calimesa district has supported her son.

    “I’m comforted that the district has guarded my son’s integrity,” Soriano said.

    The district has protected her son, she said. They’ve detected and stopped bullying and offered counseling services at school. Although her children’s district is supportive, she said she knows it’s not that way for all LGBTQ children.

    “I feel very nervous and worried for these young children,” Soriano said. “We hear a lot of stories where kids don’t have support at home and cutting off that support at school can be isolating.”

    ‘We all miss out on their gifts’

    For many LGBTQ students, the start of the 2023-24 school year means more stresses than just tests and class projects.

    Glendale police separate conservative groups and LGBTQ supporters outside Glendale Unified offices on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (File photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    The current climate “is creating fear, exacerbating anxiety and causing significant worry,” according to Traci Lowenthal, a Redlands-based therapist who specializes in LGTBQ issues.

    “To say that our LGBTQIA+ youth are aware of the uptick in hate is an understatement,” she wrote in an email.

    The changing climate has LGBTQ students feeling unsafe and isolated, and leads to feelings of self-hatred and shame, according to Lowenthal. Bullies feel emboldened. And all this has consequences for students.

    “When kids feel unsafe at school, their capacity to pay attention, retain information and enjoy social engagement is negatively impacted,” Lowenthal wrote. “When young people feel the need to hide the entirety of who they are, we all miss out on their gifts.”

    According to Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, hate crimes against the LGBTQ community rose 52% last year in 42 major cities. Hate crimes against gender non-conforming people, including those in drag, rose 47% during the same period and anti-transgender hate crimes rose 28% during the same period. The data is part of a report that was presented Friday, Aug. 25, at the August meeting of the California Commission on the State of Hate.

    Some teens dream of leaving behind communities they feel no longer welcome them.

    “For many young folks who are queer, particularly queer folks of color, if you want to be your true self, you have to leave Orange County,” said Uyen Hoang, executive director of Viet Rainbow of Orange County.

    The organization was founded a decade ago, after a 2013 Tet parade excluded LGBTQ marchers. Today, the Viet Rainbow is once again finding itself unwelcome at events in Orange County, Hoang said.

    “I thought it was very supportive here,” said Daniel Mora, 18, who graduated from Chino High in May. “But I was wrong. People would come to board meetings and be open about their ignorance and hate. I thought this was a supportive community, but I was wrong. I’m still really shocked about it.”

    This fall, he begins studying political science across the country at Yale.

    “I always knew that Chino was a bit more conservative than the entirety of California, but I really thought that people would let other people live their lives,” Mora said. “But it’s very different now; they’re very open about calling you out about something that they don’t like.”

    But other LGBTQ young people say they’re not going anywhere.

    “I’m planning to make SoCal my lifelong home. The (Chino Valley school board) is not going to silence me,” Ibarra said. “I’m going to stay and make sure that, at all times, there is at least one person who is calling them out for what they’re doing.”

    Mora believes the pendulum will swing back the other way, in time.

    “I don’t think this is the future for Chino. I think this was just the perfect time for them: A lot of people were mad about masks, a lot of people were mad about the pandemic,” he said. “I know a lot of community members in Chino that don’t agree with (the school board). I know even conservatives and Republicans who think they’re too far right and think that school boards shouldn’t be political.”

    Staff writers Monserrat Solis and Allyson Vergara contributed to this story.

    More on Southern California LGBTQ students

    Growing up gay in the 21st century: Adults, not peers, pose biggest problems
    Hesperia Unified settles for $850,000 with teacher who said district retaliated against her for siding with LGBT students
    How California students from marginalized groups are working to stop bullying
    Southern California school board meetings now political battlegrounds
    Here’s what’s in the new Temecula curriculum that concerns some board members
    Murrieta Valley school board OKs policy to tell parents if children are transgender
    Proposed transgender notification policy at Orange Unified draws divided response from parents, community
    Parental rights groups and LGBTQ supporters hold dueling protests in LA

    ​ Orange County Register