California law requires gender-neutral area in some stores

Children look at Barbie dolls in a toy store

California has become the first state to adopt a law requiring large stores to display children’s products like toys and toothbrushes in gender-neutral ways.

The new law, signed by governor Gavin Newsom on Saturday (9 October), says that retail stores with a “total of 500 or more employees across all California retail department store locations” must sell toys and childcare products outside areas specifically labelled by gender.

The legislation adds the gender-neutral section must display a “reasonable selection” of items, “regardless of whether they have been traditionally marketed for either girls or for boys”.

The law will go into effect on 1 January 2024. Any retailer who fails to introduce gender-neutral areas will be liable for a $250 fine for the first violation or $500 for subsequent violations.

Assemblyman Evan Low, an out Democrat lawmaker from San Jose who authored the bill, hoped the law would stop ‘stigmatising’ what toys and products are deemed as acceptable for certain genders and allow kids to just play.

“Part of it is to make sure if you’re a young girl that you can find a police car, fire truck, a periodic table or a dinosaur,” Low told the Los Angeles Times.

He added: “And then similarly, if you’re a boy, if you’re more artistic and want to play with glitter, why not?

“Why should you feel the stigma of saying, ‘Oh, this should be shamed’ and going to a different location?”

Low, who is also chair of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, said a staff member’s daughter inspired the bill. He recalled how the girl asked why she had to go to the boys’ section to find certain toys she was interested in.

“Children have a very unique way of saying things that provide some common sense,” Low said. “I think it’s important that we as a state are demonstrating our values of diversity and inclusion.”

Target, one of the largest retailers in the US, announced in 2015 it would phase out gender-based signage in stores. The retailer said the move came on the back of customer feedback which said suggesting “products by gender is unnecessary”.

Toymaker Hasbro announced earlier this year the classic Mr Potato Head toy would get a gender-neutral makeover to “promote gender equality and inclusion”. The toy will be known as just Potato Head moving forward.

Campbell Leaper, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, told the Los Angeles Times that gendered sections create a stigma for children who are gender non-conforming or exploring their gender identity.

“But even for kids that identify with their birth-assigned gender there may be some children who want to play with some of these toys, but then end up avoiding them because they don’t want to be considered abnormal somehow,” Leaper said.