Trans­gen­der rights stand spurs up­roar

UC Berke­ley stu­dent rep did not back mea­sure

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Nanette Asi­mov

A stu­dent sen­a­tor at UC Berke­ley ab­stained from a vote sup­port­ing trans­gen­der rights last week, then took a mo­ment to ex­plain her think­ing. Now, more than 1,000 peo­ple have signed a pe­ti­tion de­mand­ing that she re­sign from stu­dent gov­ern­ment or face a re­call.

Hun­dreds packed a Se­nate meet­ing Wed­nes­day night to in­sist that she go. On so­cial me­dia, stu­dents la­beled her a “hor­ri­ble per­son” and a “men­tal im­be­cile.” Her cam­pus po­lit­i­cal party sev­ered ties with her. And the Daily Cal­i­for­nian, UC Berke­ley’s sto­ried stu­dent news­pa­per, ran an ed­i­to­rial crit­i­cal of her state­ments and re­fused to pub­lish her writ­ten de­fense.

The up­roar be­gan Oct. 31, when the Queer Al­liance Re­source Cen­ter asked the stu­dent Se­nate to pass a bill con­demn­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion for con­sid­er­ing a le­gal def­i­ni­tion of gen­der that would re­quire it to match a per­son’s sex at birth. The pro­posal would change the fed­eral Ti­tle IX civil rights law and po­ten­tially re­move its pro­tec­tions from 1.4 mil­lion trans­gen­der peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to a New York Times story last month, based on a leaked memo. At UC Berke­ley, the stu­dents’ res­o­lu­tion also urged the univer­sity to step up sup­port of “trans­gen­der, non-bi­nary, and gen­der non-con­form­ing stu-

dents” and the cam­pus groups that help them.

Is­abella Chow, 20, ab­stained. Read­ing a five-para­graph state­ment ex­plain­ing her de­ci­sion, Chow told her 18 fel­low sen­a­tors, who all voted for the bill (an­other was ab­sent), that dis­crim­i­na­tion “is never, ever OK.” She con­demned bul­lies and big­ots. She said she ab­horred stereo­types. And she called the LGBT com­mu­nity valid and loved.

“That said,” Chow con­tin­ued, vot­ing for the bill would com­pro­mise her val­ues and force her to pro­mote groups and iden­ti­ties she dis­agrees with.

“As a Chris­tian, I per­son­ally do be­lieve that cer­tain acts and life­styles con­flict with what is good, right and true,” she said. “I be­lieve that God cre­ated male and fe­male at the be­gin­ning of time, and de­signed sex for mar­riage be­tween one man and one woman. For me, to love an­other per­son does not mean that I silently con­cur when, at the bot­tom of my heart, I do not be­lieve that your choices are right or the best for you as an in­di­vid­ual.”

Chow’s po­litely worded ex­pla­na­tion has set in mo­tion some­thing dif­fer­ent from the ide­o­log­i­cal de­bate over free speech that en­gulfed UC Berke­ley last year, as left and right bat­tled over whose speech was more wor­thy of pro­tec­tion.

This is more per­sonal, rais­ing ques­tions of whether judg­ing one’s gen­der iden­tity is the same as judg­ing some­one’s race or eth­nic­ity. And there is no more likely epi­cen­ter for that sort of de­bate than UC Berke­ley, where stu­dent ac­tion on civil rights — from free speech to sex­ual as­sault and ha­rass­ment — is part of the cam­pus cul­ture.

Now, the de­bate cen­ters on the As­so­ci­ated Stu­dents of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia — an au­tonomous, 131-year-old gov­ern­ing board that man­ages a $1.5 mil­lion bud­get and meets weekly to set stu­dent poli­cies. The 20 sen­a­tors each rep­re­sent a large swath of the stu­dent body. Chow, who has a staff of 28, was elected with sup­port from Chris­tian stu­dents and the “pub­li­ca­tions and me­dia” com­mu­nity in­volved with jour­nals, mag­a­zines and CalTV.

“She could have merely ab­stained,” said Re­gan Put­nam, pres­i­dent of the Queer Al­liance Re­source Cen­ter. “But she took it upon her­self to go into this long di­a­logue, talk­ing about mar­riage be­tween a man and a woman, and shroud­ing hate in ‘love.’ No­body asked her to ex­plain her vote. No­body who voted ‘yes’ had to ex­plain their vote.”

Within hours, Chow’s po­lit­i­cal party, Stu­dent Ac­tion, cut ties with her. So did CalTV and her pub­li­ca­tions con­stituents. A Daily Cal ed­i­to­rial called her state­ments of­fen­sive and de­clared: “UC Berke­ley stu­dents can­not al­low and ac­cept lead­ers like Chow to make de­ci­sions on their be­half.”

The pa­per also re­buffed Chow’s at­tempt to fur­ther ex­plain her views in its pages. In her re­jec­tion let­ter, opin­ion ed­i­tor Shayann Hendricks said the pa­per wouldn’t run Chow’s com­ments be­cause her sub­mis­sion re­flected her ear­lier state­ments, “which uti­lized rhetoric that is ho­mo­pho­bic and trans­pho­bic by the Daily Cal’s stan­dards.”

Chow, a ju­nior ma­jor­ing in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion and mu­sic, said she feels “frus­trated and sad that Berke­ley stu­dents are forced to live in a bub­ble, and we have to pro­tect our­selves from any­thing that a vo­cal pop­u­la­tion deems to be of­fen­sive.”

She said she’s been sur­prised by the on­slaught. “I go to classes, and peo­ple are look­ing at me. I’ve been painted in such a neg­a­tive light. Every­body’s talk­ing about it. No mat­ter how much I tried to say, ‘I can love you and still dis­agree with you,’ peo­ple still in­ter­pret my dis­agree­ment with be­ing a bigot and a hater.”

At Wed­nes­day night’s jam­packed Se­nate meet­ing, where all non-Chow busi­ness was set aside, stu­dents made clear that “dis­agree­ing” with a per­son’s essence is the def­i­ni­tion of big­otry. And for three hours, un­til shortly be­fore mid­night, they took the mi­cro­phone one by one to tell her so, as Chow sat stony-faced be­neath a huge ban­ner read­ing “Sen­a­tor Chow Re­sign Now.”

Some, like Ro­mario Con­rado, who wore a rain­bow head­band, read off the names of trans­gen­der peo­ple mur­dered by oth­ers who dis­agreed with who they were. Some told per­sonal sto­ries.

“My grand­mother is my best friend. She’s a sym­pa­thetic and pa­tient lis­tener,” be­gan a stu­dent in a white sweat­shirt. “And when I came out to her this sum­mer, the lov­ing grand­mother I came to rely on wasn’t there — much like you, Sen­a­tor Chow, be­cause of her re­li­gion.” The stu­dent be­gan to cry. “I want to ex­plain to her my mile­stones, and I want to hear how proud she is. But the warmth has been re­voked.”

Sev­eral stu­dents, in­clud­ing Chris­tians and a Mus­lim, said re­li­gion doesn’t re­quire ad­her­ents to dis­ap­prove of peo­ple any more than it re­quires “ston­ing,” a pun­ish­ment ad­vo­cated in por­tions of re­li­gious texts. And many turned Chow’s words back on her.

“I am Chris­tian. I am queer. And I am ‘good, right and true,’ ” a stu­dent named Mi­randa said. “And I de­mand Sen­a­tor Chow to re­sign!”

Three stu­dents spoke up for Chow, in­clud­ing Matt Ron­nau, who said the “mob that has de­scended upon Sen­a­tor Chow ... is a dis­grace to UC, which should be a place of de­bate.”

The crowd re­sponded with laugh­ter, and groaned when Ron­nau asked if they didn’t think con­ser­va­tives and Chris­tians were marginal­ized groups at UC Berke­ley.

An­other sup­porter, Daniel Frise, crit­i­cized the stu­dent Se­nate for im­pos­ing a “re­li­gious lit­mus test” and said: “Sen­a­tor Chow’s state­ment never im­plied any harm to the LGBT com­mu­nity. I sup­port Sen­a­tor Chow and ask her to re­main strong and not re­sign.”

Chow, who cred­its a wave of sup­port from fel­low Chris­tians across the coun­try with help­ing her en­dure the pres­sure, said she has no in­ten­tion of do­ing so.

“No, I’m not plan­ning to re­sign,” Chow told The Chron­i­cle the morn­ing af­ter the marathon crit­i­cism ses­sion. “Be­cause if I do, there will be no one else to rep­re­sent the voices that are ig­nored and mis­un­der­stood on cam­pus.”

Pho­tos by Michael Short / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Stu­dents Lind­sey Chung (left) and Ta­tiana Su wave flags and yell dur­ing a stu­dent Se­nate meet­ing at UC Berke­ley in re­sponse to Is­abella Chow’s state­ments about trans­gen­der peo­ple.

Chow listens to speak­ers call­ing for her res­ig­na­tion dur­ing the meet­ing. She said af­ter­ward that she would not step down.

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