Public schools across California will be required to have gender-neutral bathrooms by July 2026, adding another layer of protections for the state’s LGBTQ+ students.
Although some cities and school districts across the country have added gender-neutral bathrooms, the bill Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law on Saturday makes the Golden State the first to require it in schools statewide.
The legislation was among a trio of bills supporting LGBTQ+ youth that became law in recent days, including a new requirement for schools to provide “cultural competency” training to staff members on LGBTQ+ issues, and the creation of a task force that will identify LGBTQ+ students’ needs across the state and push forward initiatives to support them.
“California is proud to have some of the most robust laws in the nation when it comes to protecting and supporting our LGBTQ+ community, and we’re committed to the ongoing work to create safer, more inclusive spaces for all Californians,” Newsom said in a statement. “These measures will help protect vulnerable youth, promote acceptance, and create more supportive environments in our schools and communities.”
The bills passed in the midst of the country’s educational culture wars, where LGBTQ+ issues have increasingly become a target.
Eight states — Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho and North Dakota — ban transgender students from using their preferred bathrooms and facilities in K-12 schools, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank that tracks LGBTQ+ policies and data nationwide. Florida takes such policies one step further, making it a criminal offense for transgender people to use bathrooms that differ from their sex assigned at birth.
California’s new law has its roots in such an effort. In 2021, the Chino Valley Unified school board introduced a resolution to bar transgender students from accessing their preferred bathrooms — a move that was soon criticized by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who warned the district that its attempt clashed with state law.
That resolution ended up failing. And in its wake, Thurmond joined the bathroom bill’s author, Sen. Josh Newman, a Fullerton Democrat, as a sponsor.
“This didn’t seem like a matter of anything more than basic fairness and equity,” Newman said. “My hope is that this bill makes life just a little bit easier during a time of life that’s hard for everybody, but especially hard for young people going through all of the issues and processes involved with finding oneself.”
Newman said that in the lead-up to writing the bill, he heard countless testimonies from students who — worried about being bullied or called out by another student or staff member — didn’t use the bathroom for the entire school day. He heard stories of urinary tract infections and severe anxiety. And all the while, school boards across the state roiled over who should be allowed to use which bathrooms, locker rooms and school facilities.
“From seventh through ninth grade, I avoided using the bathroom at my school,” a high school student told the state’s Safe School Bathroom Ad Hoc Committee, a group created by the California Department of Education in 2021. The student, who is referred to as Sam, spoke in a February 2023 news release published by Newman’s office. “The only all-gender restroom at my school was exclusively for teachers, was kept locked, and was located behind the desks of administrative staff. To use that restroom, I would have had to come out as transgender to the faculty — something I was not ready to do.”
Though California schools were previously required to give students access to the restrooms they prefer, they were not mandated to provide gender-neutral facilities. This new bill changes that, requiring all school districts, county offices of education, and charter networks to have at least one gender-neutral restroom at each school site.
People across the country are divided on the issue, with 31% of Americans opposed to laws that would require transgender individuals to use public restrooms that match the gender they were assigned at birth, according to a 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center. And while 28% of Americans neither support nor oppose such policies, 41% are in favor of them.
“While states across the nation are passing legislation that puts LGBTQ+ people and especially youth at risk, California is sending a clear message today — hate-filled attacks will not be tolerated and we will continue protecting and ensuring the safety of all members of the LGBTQ+ community,” said Tony Hoang, the executive director of Equality California, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization.