Why is a California Politician Targeting Transgender Kids?

Tim Donnelly | Photo: Ernie Tyler/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The California desert has some dangerous spots best avoided at certain times. When it's warm enough for snakes to be awake, you don't want to get within striking range of a Mojave green. When there's a thunderstorm in progress, you don't want to be in a slot canyon. And when there's political hay to be made by promoting hatred of the most vulnerable members of our society, you definitely don't want to get in between Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and a press opportunity. You'll get trampled.

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Donnelly, who represents California's 33rd Assembly District, covering most of San Bernardino County's desert, is calling attention to himself this week in the wake of Governor Jerry Brown's signing of Assembly Bill 1266. The bill guarantees fair access for transgender kids to gender-separated activities in California's public schools. The bill's passage basically means that public school students who identify as a particular gender can participate in the appropriate sports team and use the appropriate bathroom without fear of official prohibition or reprisal.

The law doesn't make it easy to be a transgender school kid, though it is definitely a step in the right direction. Transgender people, kids and adults, are still subject to harassment and bullying to wildly disproportionate degrees, with some of that hatred coming from surprising quarters. Both the Gay and Lesbian movement and feminist movements have sectors that are profoundly transphobic, with one group of such feminists recently going so far as to hijack a feminist site's URL when it expired to spread their views.

That's from the progressive end of the spectrum, which is supposed to be more tolerant of diversity. On the right, whose people are still fighting against such broadly accepted concepts as marriage equality in California, the intolerance runs even deeper.

Which provides an opportunity for Tim Donnelly, who apparently never saw a prejudice he didn't think he could capitalize on. In a letter he sent last week to the far-right website WND, Donnelly said he's pulling his kids out of public schools as a result of AB 1266's passage.

Allowing teenage boys and girls in the same locker room, showering side by side, is a bad idea. In fact, AB 1266 is a recipe for disaster... This will take the normal hormonal battles raging inside every teenager and pour gasoline onto those simmering coals....The right to privacy enjoyed by every student will be replaced by the right to be ogled. My 13- and 16-year-old boys were horrified at the idea of sharing a bathroom and locker room with a member of the opposite sex, after having discussed AB 1266 with them.... My boys, who went back to the public school after many years away, will not be returning.

One can just imagine the conversation that took place in the Donnelly household, in which the Assemblyman sat his sons down and "discussed" the issue of transgender people in locker rooms with them.

Donnelly's letter is full of long-disproven stereotypes and false assumptions about what it means to be a transgender person, referring to the shape of a person's sexual organs as the sole determinant of that person's "actual" gender. The notion that a young person would go through the painful physical and social process of transitioning so that he could come into a boy's locker room and leer and ogle is ridiculous beyond belief, as is the notion that if we keep trans-boys out of that locker room, there won't be any ogling. (I went to an all-male high school back in the 1970s, and trust me: there was plenty of locker room ogling, both subtle and blatant.)

This isn't Donnelly's first go-round on civil rights issues in the press. He briefly rose to national prominence, if that is the right word, in 2006, featured on the satirical show "The Colbert Report." At that point in his career, Donnelly was the founder and leader of the California chapter of the border vigilante group Minuteman; Colbert's cameras showed up at a press event in which Donnelly and his cohort strung a few strands of barbed wire along an already-fortified section of the California-Mexico border.

Colbert's interviews almost always show their subjects at their least impressive. Donnelly gave Colbert a lot to work with, calling the singing of the Star Spangled Banner in Spanish a "desecration," proclaiming it a "good day to be a vigilante," and claiming the new barbed wire had made a difference even as his colleagues described it as a pointless exercise.

Donnelly formally jumped ship from Minuteman just as the movement started to collapse under its own odious weight in 2006, reinventing himself as a respectable politician. Since his election in 2010 with Tea Party support to the California Assembly, Donnelly has provided support to a number of fringe causes such as the antivaccination movement.

But his foremost cause, in the last decade, has always been protecting the privileged against perceived threats from scary underclasses, as shown in this widely quoted rant Donnelly posted on a conservative website, which got much wider play when the LA Weekly reposted it in 2010:

"The facts are incontrovertible that allowing an illegal invasion of the United States will destroy the American Southwest, and very probably wipe out the freedoms we American Christians enjoy, as Muslim Extremists blend in with the so-called 'innocent' illegal aliens, and eventually proselytize them. It is not a stretch to picture a revolt in Los Angeles, whose population is comprised of over 50 percent illegal aliens. At the rate of influx and births, it will be 80 percent illegal alien within a decade. ... None of this bodes well for the citizens who live in Southern California now, nor will it improve the life of the poor alien, but it is well on its way to wiping out everything that was once good in Southern California."

Here's the thing about targeting undocumented migrants, though: they have a constituency among registered voters, as Republicans found out (though did not necessarily learn) in the last election cycle. Transgender people? Not so much. And so much as Vladimir Putin is seizing on and promoting Russia's rampant homophobia in order to bolster his career, so is Donnelly apparently trying to harness California's transphobia to help propel him to the governor's office in 2014.

Beyond the considerations of polling percentage points, though, lies a moral issue that this avowedly moral Tea Party pol would do well to remember. We measure our ethics as a society by how we treat the most vulnerable among us. Whether we're talking about a transsexual kid in Marin or an undocumented pre-teen in San Bernardino County -- Donnelly apparently was propelled into activism after getting upset about a Mexican-American fourth-grader's conduct -- kids who belong to groups who are less socially powerful often bear the brunt of their peers' hatred.

And that hatred is, more often than not, learned from their parents, whether it's picked up by osmosis or as a result of the parents' sitting them down to "discuss the issue."

Minuteman itself, as it turns out, has been implicated in the cold-blooded murder of at least one child, and its Arizona founder is hardly the kind of person you'd entrust with your own kids. If Donnelly wants to investigate ways in which our society makes children less safe, perhaps he could start by digging through his own rolodex.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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