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Pat Cordova-Goff stands on the field where she played baseball as a boy.Laura Kleinhenz for Al Jazeera America
When Pat Cordova-Goff was born 17 years ago, the hospital marked her gender as male. It was true by conventional measures, but Cordova-Goff never really felt like a boy.
On the playground, she jumped rope with girls, and they became her confidantes. Some of her elementary-school classmates called her homophobic slurs.
“I think over the years I realized that I can’t care what people are going to say,” she said. “I can’t live my life that way, even though sometimes it’s hard not to.”
Cordova-Goff came out as transgender as a sophomore in high school, and now she colors her lips with a deep fuchsia hue and perks her eyelashes with mascara. She listens to Alicia Keys and Beyoncé and says Princess Diana is her idol. Cordova-Goff takes pride in attending Azusa High School in California’s San Gabriel Valley, so she joined the cheer team before identifying as transgender and continued to perform after coming out. As a senior, she ran for student body president against a popular candidate — and won.
Though Cordova-Goff’s family lost its home several years ago and has lived in motels since, she tries to seize every opportunity available to her. She might seem like any other highly motivated teenage girl overcoming tough odds if it weren’t for the media attention surrounding her latest achievement: joining the girls’ softball team.
As a freshman, Cordova-Goff played baseball but felt uncomfortable and didn’t try out again. Now she is one of the first transgender students to benefit from a new state law, A.B. 1266, which offers youth the right to participate in sex-segregated school programs, activities and athletics even if their gender identity does not match what appears on their school records. It also permits these students to use bathrooms and locker rooms according to their stated gender.
The bill, which remains the target of a referendum campaign to overturn it by popular vote this fall, has stirred an intense debate about how to balance the needs of transgender youth with those of their peers.
For Cordova-Goff, playing softball is a tradition. “This sport has kind of defined what my family is about,” she said. When her father wasn’t coaching, he would take Pat and her three sisters to a nearby field and practice drills until they were exhausted. Now the chance to compete has come at a cost.
“There are a lot of days where I’m so over everything,” she said of critical or derogatory comments in news stories and on social media. “But I try to remember the bigger picture and the reason I’m on the field.”
Though Cordova-Goff is well liked on campus, there have been difficult days. When she attended a boys-versus-girls rally in her sophomore year wearing earrings and pink clothing, she said, classmates threw trash and yelled derogatory comments. Last fall, she ran for homecoming queen and said that some of her posters were defaced with explicit drawings.
Cordova-Goff has rarely shared this bullying with her parents or school administrators. Her father, a forklift driver who was laid off several years ago, and her mother, an unemployed clerical worker, are supportive. But she worries about their financial stress and doesn’t want to burden them further. As a student leader, she wants her classmates to focus on how she can serve them, so conflicts that arise from bullying feel like a distraction.
“I have to be 100 percent on my game for them,” she said.
The school’s principal, Ramiro Rubalcaba, met with Cordova-Goff and her parents. “I said, ‘If you ever experience anything — whether it’s real or perceived — the administration needs to be notified because it will not be tolerated.’”
Before the passage of A.B. 1266 last year, transgender students were generally protected from discrimination by the education code, but some schools and districts also developed specific policies to acknowledge their needs.
The San Francisco Unified School District forbade schools from forcing a transgender student to use a bathroom or locker room that didn’t correspond to his or her gender identity. The district also allowed youth to join a competitive sports team on a case-by-case basis.
But that wasn’t the case across the state. In one high-profile discrimination complaint in the San Gabriel Valley that had to be resolved by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice last year, a transgender boy had been denied the use of sex-specific facilities for male students during school and extracurricular activities and was not permitted to stay overnight in a boys’ cabin during a school-sponsored academic camp.
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who sponsored A.B. 1266, has said he wanted to clarify the education code to address the rights of transgender youth.
“These are just kids who want to be treated respectfully and have an equal opportunity to do well,” said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, an advocacy organization based in Oakland, Calif. “One of the most important things is for youth who are transgender to be treated throughout the school day based on the gender in which they live their lives.”
A question of privacy
Opponents of the bill worry that it sacrifices the privacy of non-transgender students who might not feel comfortable using a restroom or locker room with someone who is medically considered to be of the opposite sex.
“Those of us involved have nothing but compassion for any individual who feels awkward in a traditional sex-separated bathroom and locker room,” said Tim LeFever, an executive committee member of Privacy for All Students, a group that is campaigning to overturn the bill at the ballot box. “But we also have compassion for those students who feel it would be an intrusion to bring them into their bathroom or locker room.”
LeFever said the group’s main concern is privacy; it has no official stance on the participation of transgender youth in sports or activities.
Privacy for All Students spent about a half-million dollars gathering more than 600,000 signatures to qualify for a referendum. The secretary of state announced last month that it had disqualified more than 100,000 of those signatures (about 500,000 are needed). The group contested that decision and is fighting to restore some of those names.
Though Cordova-Goff was an advocate of the bill, she doesn’t actually feel comfortable using the girls’ restroom at school. She is unsure how her classmates would react and wants to avoid awkward encounters. Instead, she often goes to two private bathrooms that Rubalcaba opened. The school also built three separate changing areas in its locker room for Cordova-Goff and other student who might want more privacy.
Rubalcaba is carefully trying to implement the law at Azusa High School, where 90 percent of the students are Latino and the same percentage are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
“We’re going to make sure the process is done in a way that consistently supports everyone and is also respectful and mindful of the implications it has for other students and their rights as well and the concerns of their families,” he said.
Part of the vanguard
On a recent balmy afternoon the school’s varsity girls’ softball team, the Aztecs, gathered for practice. Cordova-Goff stood in the right outfield catching pop flies and skittering line drives. She occasionally let out a yelp of horror when her mitt missed the ball. This was not her best performance, she later admitted, but she’s getting used to a new role.
She grew up playing third base, a position that sees a lot of action, and that’s what she likes most about it. “You’re always on your toes,” she said. “You’re always trying to just be a ballerina.”
Later, when given a chance to play her favorite position, she drifted off the base, leaned into a squat, her mitt facing upward as she waited for the batter to swing. She snatched a fast-paced grounder and sent the ball straight to first base in time to tag the runner out. There were no yelps for this play — just a broad smile. It was a rare moment of unequivocal happiness on the field
Since Cordova-Goff tried out and made the team in February, she has found the media attention a little exhausting. She has heard rumors that other teams don’t want to play Azusa, and it saddens her to think that she might negatively affect the team’s season. But she also resents the criticism that her presence might give the Aztecs an unfair competitive advantage.
“I really do feel that automatically assuming I’m going to dominate the field is an insult not only to me but to other softball players who have worked their whole lives,” she said. “They’re kind of assuming I’m going to be better than all of the girls, when in reality I’m not.”
The idea of competitive advantage wasn’t a central concern for the California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees the state’s high school sports. In February 2013, well before A.B. 1266 passed, the CIF issued new guidelines for permitting transgender students to try out for and participate in athletics. The process begins with the school, and if a student feels unfairly excluded, he or she can appeal to the CIF.
Cordova-Goff knows she is part of the vanguard and sometimes enjoys that feeling.
“I like breaking barriers,” she said.
That includes joining the homecoming court as a princess and founding her school’s first gay-straight alliance club. . Last summer she became an activist and organizer through the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Network, a national youth organization. She is hoping to be admitted to Harvard and other top-tier universities.
“I feel like for Pat the sky is the limit,” said Ariel Bustamante, the Southern California program coordinator for GSA Network. “She’s always stood out as having a positive and creative attitude that inspires her peers and the adults around her.”
At one of the season’s first games, Cordova-Goff suited up in the team’s black-and-blue uniform, her nails painted bright yellow and her black hair tied up with a ribbon. She played two innings at right field and bunted at bat. “It was a blast,” she said.
“There are moments where we forget about what everyone else is saying and we’re just playing a sport we love,” she said. “And those are the moments that I’m trying to make the whole season.”