Launching a statewide fight against trans discrimination from the inside of a church is a strategic move.
That strategy carries even more meaning when the church isn't located in Seattle, an urban enclave everyone already knows is rainbow-striped and proud of it. Instead, on April 28, more than a hundred people carrying "No on I-1515" signs packed the pews at the Renton First United Methodist Church. The message for supporters of a proposed ballot measure that would repeal protections for transgender people in bathrooms and locker rooms was clear: They are not the moral majority.
"We treat other people the way we want to be treated, even when somebody looks different, perhaps more important when someone looks different from us," Bishop Kirby Unti, of the Northwest Washington Synod, told the crowd.
Unti is one of several religious leaders, businesses, and advocates for survivors of sexual assault supporting Washington Won't Discriminate, the new coalition facing off against Just Want Privacy, the anti-LGBTQ group trying to police trans people's genitalia in gender-segregated bathrooms. Just Want Privacy's I-1515 would—if it gathers enough signatures to qualify for the ballot this fall—allow public and private organizations to keep transgender people out of the bathrooms that match their gender identities. The initiative would mandate that public school bathrooms and locker rooms be sex-segregated—and allow students to sue their schools if transgender kids use the gender-segregated spaces where they feel most comfortable.
I-1515 is still collecting the 246,372 signatures it needs to qualify for the ballot. As of May 2, Just Want Privacy has raised just $26,993, largely in cash donations. Washington Won't Discriminate, on the other hand, has raised $36,861, though those funds represent in-kind donations of staff time, legal consulting fees, polling, and web development.
Washington Won't Discriminate already has some of the state's biggest corporate employers on its side. Google and Dow Chemical have both endorsed the effort. Microsoft, too. "Diversity and inclusion is a strength for our community," DeLee Shoemaker, Microsoft's senior director of state government affairs, said in an e-mailed statement. "As a major employer in Washington State, we oppose I-1515. It's bad for our employees, our community, and our economy."
Businesses aren't ignorant of the financial impact a policy like I-1515 could have on Washington, either. "Rolling back our antidiscrimination policies in Washington State, beside being the wrong thing to do morally, would be a disaster for business," Louise Chernin, president of the Greater Seattle Business Association, said. "States that have passed laws like I-1515 are now becoming a target of boycotts. Concerts have been canceled, and other businesses have pulled out their expansion, like Paypal [in North Carolina]."
A number of advocacy groups for survivors of sexual assault and women's health are also supporting Washington Won't Discriminate. Just Want Privacy has repeatedly made wild and false claims about the danger of transgender people using bathrooms with "little girls," as if trans people, or cis men pretending to be trans women, were an actual threat. They are not.
"Discriminating against transgender people does nothing to reduce the risk of sexual assault," Andrea Piper-Wentland, executive director of the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, said at the launch of Washington Won't Discriminate.
Parents of transgender kids are well aware of the fact that trans people face some of the highest rates of violence—particularly sexual violence—in the country. Michael Peña, a science teacher at Everett's Mariner High School and father of a transgender teen, fears that I-1515 could put kids at even greater risk.
"We're talking about a subgroup of students that has dealt with oppression for so long, and ridicule and bullying, and all of these things," Peña told me at the Washington Won't Discriminate event. "To have this layered upon them again and then to be told, you know, you're not allowed to use the restroom of your gender is just another shot at these kids who need so much."
Luckily, Peña's 15-year-old son, Myles, says that his classmates are on his side. They think that lawmakers trying to force people like Myles to use the girls' restroom is ridiculous. "When I complain about wanting to go to the bathroom, but not wanting to walk all the way over to the nurse's bathroom, [my classmates] think it's pretty stupid and I should use whatever bathroom I want to," he said. "And the fact that people want to pass a bill that says I can't pee—they think that's pretty dumb."