The Washington legislative session gets underway next week and Republican officials are busy riling up the fears of their base over a new rule from the state's Human Rights Commission that explicitly protects the right of transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.
Transgender advocates say progressives need to be prepared for this backlash. In other places around the country, as former Stranger writer Dominic Holden has reported for BuzzFeed, LGBTQ groups have been caught flat-footed as campaigns to overturn anti-discrimination laws have seen success by spreading the bullshit claim that they allow men to go into women's restrooms and do bad things.
The drumbeat is getting louder. In a statement this week, Senator Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) accused the Human Rights Commission of overstepping its authority and pledged to fight against its new rules in the upcoming session. “Parents have a right to expect that when their children go to school, the boys will use the boys’ locker room and the girls will use the girls’ locker room,” Ericksen said.
Rep. Graham Hunt (R-Orting) echoed him on Twitter, spurred on by right-wing talk show hosts and a "Family Policy Institute" blogger. Ericksen did not respond to a request for comment yesterday. In an interview with The Stranger, Hunt said that "there are a lot of folks on every side of this issue who are concerned." He intends to file a bill next week to declare that a transgender person must use the public showers, locker rooms, and restrooms that correspond with that person’s current sex organs. He expects a similar GOP bill to also be filed in the state senate. "My bill focuses on privacy," Hunt said. "You assume people changing clothes around you are of the same gender as you."
The new language in the commission's administrative code, which interprets and applies the state's broadly-worded non-discrimination law, says that where public and private buildings offer gender segregated facilities (rather than Seattle's gender neutral restrooms), any individual must be allowed to use the facilities "consistent with that individual's gender identity." The commission held public hearings about the code changes over the past few years and finally put them into effect on December 26.
“What they’ve done is basically clarify existing Washington state law, which already prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Emily Chiang of the ACLU told the Washington Times.
The new rule went into effect days after the YMCA of Kitsap and Pierce Counties issued an apology and said it would stop discriminating on the basis of gender identity, "which means that transgender members are free to use the restrooms and locker rooms designated for the gender they identify with, not necessarily the gender listed on their birth certificate," the Kitsap Sun reports.
Seattle's Gender Justice League Executive Director Danni Askini points out that the non-discrimination law has been on the books since 2006, and transgender people across the state are already using bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.
Still, the new language is a welcome advance, she said, to help ensure that "transgender people can use the facilities that are safest for them." A national survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality showed that 53 percent of transgender people "reported being harassed or disrespected in a place of public accommodation."
"Transgender men are men," Askini said. "Transgender women are women. Which is why they should use restrooms that are consistent with their gender."
The Gender Justice League has received dozens of e-mails in recent days accusing it of harboring "perverts who don't care if little girls get raped," Askini said. Which, again, is complete bullshit. None of the commission's new non-discrimination language would shield someone from prosecution over illicit activity in a bathroom or locker room.
"It's disappointing that we have this kind of backlash," said Laurie Jinkins, an openly gay Democratic house member who represents the 27th district in Tacoma. "It is already illegal for men to go into women's restrooms with some intent to harm someone. That is criminal and it should be prosecuted. To try to equate these things is unconscionable in my mind."
Jinkins continued: "If there's somebody in the locker room who is inappropriately engaging with someone else, then stop it and tell whoever runs the locker room about it. Call 911 if you need to. But if someone is just in the locker room, minding their own business, changing, it's just beyond me why people want to make up theoretical problems that don't exist."
As the chairperson of the House Judiciary Committee, Jinkins said she would refuse to give a hearing to any bills that sought to overturn the commission's rule. Governor Jay Inslee's office, which tweeted support for the YMCA's non-discrimination policy last month, did not respond to questions over whether he would veto any such legislation should it somehow pass both chambers.
Over in state senate, Marko Liias (D-Mukilteo), described the proposed Republican bills as "a solution looking for a problem." Liias, who is gay, said he has not heard of any incident in Washington in which someone was spooked by a transgender person using a specific public bathroom or public shower. He added that transgender people face plenty of family and social difficulties, and should have the right to stick to their identified genders in the circumstances outlined by the Human Rights Commission.
Liias introduced the only transgender-oriented bill in the 2015 legislative session. It called for schools to have anti-bullying policies that addressed transgender kids. That bill passed in different forms in the senate and house, but stalled before the differences could be resolved. Liias also introduced a bill in both 2014 and 2015 to outlaw “deprogramming” a gay person in order to make that individual straight. That bill made it out of the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee in 2015, but was never scheduled for a full senate vote by that chamber’s GOP leadership.
It is impossible to tell the percentage of Washington’s residents who are transgender. The National Center for Transgender Equality’s Web site said no agency has attempted to figure out that percentage, but guessed that the amount could range from 0.25 percent to 1 percent of the general population. Liias guessed less than one percent. In any event, he said, “it is a small group of people we’re talking about"—yet another indication that, as he'd already pointed out, the Republicans' transgender bathroom panic is a non-existent "problem" that doesn't need any sort of "solution."
Additional reporting by John Stang.