SACRAMENTO, Calif. – When North Carolina in 2016 banned transgender people from using the bathroom of their gender identity in public buildings, California retaliated by banning state-funded travel to that state and any other state with laws it deemed discriminatory against LGBTQ people.
But seven years later, California now bans state-funded travel to nearly half of the country following a surge of anti-LGBTQ legislation in mostly Republican-led states.
The prohibition means sports teams at public colleges and universities have had to find other ways to pay for road games in states like Arizona and Utah. And it has complicated some of the state’s other policy goals, like using state money to pay for people who live in other states to travel to California for abortions.
Wednesday, state Senate leader Toni Atkins announced legislation that would end the ban and replace it with an advertising campaign in those states that promotes acceptance and inclusion for the LGBTQ community. The bill would set up a fund to pay for the campaign, which would accept private donations and state funding — if any is available.
“I think polarization is not working,” said Atkins, who is a lesbian. “We need to adjust our strategy. We know what we need to do, but we need to be able to be there to do it.”
Overturning the ban could be difficult in the California Legislature, where 10% of lawmakers now identify as LGBT. Assemblymember Evan Low, a Democrat from Campbell who authored the travel ban in 2016, said he supports the advertising campaign but said “we shouldn't completely end California's state-funded travel ban without having an alternative action in combating discrimination.”
“We can't back down, especially as a record amount of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is being introduced,” said Low, who is gay.
California's travel ban has been in effect since 2017. The state Attorney General keeps a list of states subject to the ban, a list that has grown quickly as several states have passed laws restricting doctors from providing gender-affirming care to minors and stopping transgender women and girls from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity.
Today, the ban includes 23 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.
The law applies to state agencies, departments, boards, authorities and commissions — including the schools that are part of the University of California and the California State University systems.
That means schools like the University of California, Berkeley, can't use state money for their football teams to travel to away games in Arizona and Utah — schools it must play against because they are in the same athletic conference.
The San Diego State University men's basketball team will play in the Final Four on Saturday in Houston, a state that is on the no-travel list. The team got around the ban because the NCAA, not California taxpayers, is footing the bill for the team's travel. But the ban does mean the school can't schedule football games against teams in Texas, said Jamie McConeghy, senior associate athletic director of communications and media relations for San Diego State.
The law has a number of exceptions, including travel necessary to enforce California laws, meet contractual obligations or to obtain grant funding. It also allows travel for the protection of health and safety, which is why a state-funded security detail could travel with Gov. Gavin Newsom's family on a vacation to Montana last year.
But it has complicated some of the Democrats' policy goals in surprising ways. Last year, California agreed to spend $20 million to help women in other states travel to California for abortions in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
“We could help someone fly or travel to California, but when they had to go back to Texas or Florida or whatever any of those states, we actually couldn't legitimately spend money to send them home,” Atkins said. “It starts to get complicated.”
Atkins said she will formally introduce the legislation on Thursday, which must be vetted by lawmakers in both the state Senate and state Assembly before it could become law — a process that will take several months.
“When you disagree with someone, you should try to open their eyes to change hearts and minds, not pretend they don't exist," said Assemblymember Greg Wallis, a Republican from Bermuda Dunes. "I'm glad California is coming around to that approach.”
Marc Stein, a history professor at San Francisco State University who is gay and does research on queer history, said he would want to hear from LGBTQ communities in other states before deciding whether he supports lifting the travel ban.
But Stein said he would like to see an exception made for social justice research. Shortly after California's travel ban took place, he said he had trouble booking a trip to North Carolina shortly after the travel ban took effect so he could research the case of a transgender woman who had been arrested for sodomy in the 1960s.
Stein said the university eventually found a way to fund his research, but said the barrier remains for other researchers, particularly students studying for advanced degrees.
“I think Ph.D. students in California are being discouraged from pursuing research projects that would require extensive trips to the list of states which is now almost half the country,” he said.