Meet Joseph Backholm. That's him in the photo up there: lawyer, son of a pastor, a man who had his ass handed to him by voters in 2012—more on that in a moment—and currently Washington State's most prominent anti-trans bigot.
Backholm works for the Family Policy Institute of Washington. He also heads Just Want Privacy, the campaign committee gathering signatures for Initiative 1515, which would allow businesses to discriminate against trans people by not allowing them to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.
Initiative 1515 is far-reaching. Along with repealing a state Human Rights Commission rule allowing transgender people to use the bathroom in which they feel comfortable and allowing businesses to discriminate, it would allow students to sue their schools if trans kids use bathrooms that don't match their assigned gender at birth.
Just Want Privacy claims allowing trans people to pee where they should will open the door for male predators to waltz into women's restrooms and locker rooms and assault little girls with impunity—despite the fact that there's zero evidence of trans people harassing cis people in bathrooms and despite the fact that offenses like sexual assault and voyeurism, in bathrooms or anywhere else, are already illegal. In fact, trans people are more likely to be survivors of assault. One in two trans people is sexually assaulted or abused at some point in their lives, according to the Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime.
While Backholm's supporters have been gathering signatures for I-1515 at churches across the state, opponents have put together a broad-based coalition to try to stop him. In the face of that opposition, Backholm has only become a bigger asshole.
In June, Backholm told signature gatherers for I-1515 that if women weren't willing to sign their petition, signature gatherers should follow them into the bathrooms and ask again. Backholm dismissed it as a "joke"—"It was obvious to all that we are not seriously encouraging people to gather signatures inside restrooms," he said in an e-mail—but the county sheriff, state attorney general, and LGBTQ activists warned that following women into bathrooms is illegal.
Already, trans people in Washington are "significantly more fearful" because of Backholm and the Just Want Privacy campaign, says Danni Askini, executive director of the trans advocacy group Gender Justice League. "There definitely is a sense that there's more attention on gender nonconforming people in public spaces. People are afraid to participate in public or just go out in public. The campaign has really created a huge sense of fear that people are in danger, even if the law doesn't pass."
If you've been paying attention in Washington State over the last decade, Backholm's name should ring a bell.
As head of the Lynnwood-based Family Policy Institute of Washington (FPIW), Backholm is a professional right-wing asshole. The FPIW unsuccessfully fought domestic partnerships for same-sex couples and then unsuccessfully fought to block marriage rights for same-sex couples; the FPIW has campaigned against abortion rights, defended conversion therapy, and protected people who refuse to vaccinate their children for religious reasons. The group offers "Olympia 101" trainings to teach conservatives how to lobby in the state legislature and runs a blog, YouTube channel, and podcast.
"There aren't that many groups on the conservative side [in Washington State]. The Family Policy Institute is the most outspoken," says Collin Jergens, communications director for Fuse Washington, the progressive organization that recently recorded Backholm saying signature gatherers should follow women into bathrooms. Jergens, who calls Backholm "unhinged," says, "He has been espousing hate and discrimination against members of our community for years."
In 2009, Backholm and the Family Policy Institute helped lead the charge against domestic partnerships in Washington, which gave couples the same state rights granted by marriage. After losing that fight at the ballot box (voters approved domestic partnerships with 53 percent of the vote), he then pointed to the existence of the domestic partnerships he tried to block to argue against gay marriage in 2012.
Same-sex couples didn't need marriage, he claimed, because domestic partnerships already gave them all the same rights as married couples—and allowing gay marriage would "send a message to fathers and potential fathers in this state that it isn't important for them to be in the lives of their children because dads, specifically, don't matter," Backholm said in testimony to the state legislature in January 2012.
In a KCTS debate featuring Backholm, now-mayor Ed Murray, and others on both sides of the issues, Backholm claimed children "do better" when raised by a mother and father. When The Stranger's Dan Savage interrupted, saying, "That's bullshit," the host asked Backholm for his "basis" for the assertion. "I think it's observable reality," Backholm replied. In fact, it's very clearly not reality. A mountain of research has shown children with gay parents fare no worse than children with straight parents.
And just like he had lost in 2009, Backholm's arguments lost again in 2012. Marriage equality passed statewide with almost 54 percent of the vote. Same-sex marriage was on the ballot in four states that year, and LGBTQ advocates won in all four states—but the win in Washington had the biggest margin. Backholm isn't just the state's most recognizable anti-gay activist, but a completely ineffectual one.
While the FPIW was fighting LGBTQ rights at the ballot box—because that's where the money is—they were also lobbying the state legislature. In the organization's nine-year history, it has:
• Supported defining life as beginning at conception.
• Opposed legislation expanding access to birth control for poor women, with Backholm claiming women already had enough access to contraception.
• Opposed a telemedicine bill because the group claimed it would allow "webcam abortions" and a bill requiring insurance companies that cover maternity care to also cover abortions.
• Repeatedly supported requirements that minors who get abortions notify their parents. Backholm dismissed concerns about teens who may be put in danger by having to tell their parents they were pregnant.
• Supported a bill about "informed decision making" for the state's Death with Dignity Act. Like abortion counseling laws, that bill would have required doctors to inform patients about a laundry list of "feasible alternatives" before patients were able to access the drugs for assisted suicide.
Today, as he fights the bathroom rule, this asshole Backholm is also working to undermine trans people's existence, arguing that trans women are really just men "pretending" to be women. Last year, during a speech at a leadership conference for "young conservatives," Backholm compared trans people to the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes."
"I once thought that story was useful as an illustration but patently absurd," Backholm said. "No parade would gather to celebrate the new clothes of a naked emperor—until Bruce Jenner. And we now have a nation celebrating the fiction that a man is now a woman."
Backholm and the FPIW are also criticizing the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction over new learning standards. Those standards say kindergarten students should "understand there are many ways to express gender," third graders should learn that "gender roles can vary considerably" and "understand [the] importance of treating others with respect regarding gender identity," and fourth graders will learn the definition of sexual orientation.
The FPIW's response: "It is frightening to think that students who hold traditional beliefs about gender and sexual identity may have to choose between accepting politically correct talking points or failing assignments and being ostracized by school administrators."
But for many gay and trans people, what's frightening is the political climate created by those "traditional beliefs," a climate in which gunmen have attacked a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and a gay nightclub in Orlando. While anti-trans rhetoric spews from campaigns like Backholm's, trans people are dying. Nationally, more trans people were murdered in 2015 than any other year advocates have kept track—and most of those victims were women of color, according to a report from the Human Rights Campaign.
The deep-blue Puget Sound region—where the City of Seattle requires all public single-occupancy bathrooms to be gender neutral—is not exempt. According to a recent Seattle Times report, 72 hate crimes or other incidents against LGBTQ people were reported to the Seattle police last year, double the number reported during the previous year.
On June 22, a transgender person said they were beaten on Capitol Hill as they left a fundraiser for Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando where a gunman killed 49 people less than two weeks earlier. The victim, Michael Volz, told reporters the attack was "not an isolated incident."
Washington has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since the 1980s, when the state helped elect and reelect Ronald Reagan. It's been just as long since we've had a Republican governor. Washington is among the least religious states in the country, according to a Gallup survey about church attendance. The state added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination law in 2006. In other words: In Washington, the right is losing the culture war. Yet Backholm's organization is raking in more money than ever before.
Tax documents show the FPIW's revenues have grown from about $206,000 in 2011 to $364,000 in 2014. The bathroom bill campaign, Just Want Privacy, has raised about $149,000, with the biggest donations coming from Cedar Park Assembly of God Church in Bothell, a developer in Lynnwood named Larry Sundquist, and James Mischel Jr., the CEO of a mirror manufacturer in Everett who in 2014 filed a Supreme Court brief supporting companies fighting the birth-control mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
Recently, the campaign announced a new $50,000 donation to help it pay for signature gatherers, plus an offer from a donor who pledged to match any individual donations up to $50,000. (Because the group hasn't yet reported that money to the state, it's not clear who donated it.)
In 2014, Backholm was one of only two paid staff according to IRS filings. Today, the Family Policy Institute website lists four staffers. (Tax information for 2015 is not yet available.) Backholm makes about $95,000 a year for his work attacking LGBTQ people in Washington State—and women, and minors, and dying people.
Nearly one hundred thousand dollars a year: Not bad money for being a professional asshole.
Although Backholm and the FPIW have continually lost big fights in Washington, "bathroom" arguments have been potent in other states and cities, where the pro-LGBTQ movement has been caught flat-footed. That's why the campaign against I-1515, which has raised money and support from major businesses like Amazon, is so significant. Washington Won't Discriminate has raised about $80,000 in in-kind donations and $53,000 in cash, including money from prominent local unions and the ACLU of Washington.
Backholm, meanwhile, is benefitting not only from politicians who are enthusiastically supportive of his positions but also from those who are silently complicit.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant—the Washington GOP's pick for the highest office in the state—has refused to take a clear side on the issue. But the Washington State GOP platform has drifted right in recent years and now includes a section about gender identity. The most recent version of the platform opposes "sex education, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual education, or any other sexual education alternatives."
Just Want Privacy has also benefited from "coopting the narrative of survivors" of sexual assault, says Askini, of Gender Justice League.
"When it comes to publicity and press, they put survivors of sexual assault out in front," Askini says. "It kind of has erased the fact that trans people are far more likely than cis people to be survivors of violence. It takes the air out of our ability to present that [argument]. We end up in a conversation of survivors debating over these nuances rather than addressing the structural things that cause rape culture."
The Just Want Privacy campaign has until July 8 to gather about 250,000 valid signatures in order to qualify for the ballot. The group's website says they've gathered 94,000 signatures, but in a since-deleted Facebook post, the group claimed to have 130,000. Backholm, who would respond to The Stranger only by e-mail, dodged the signature question and wrote only: "It changes daily."
The fight between supporters and opponents of Backholm's initiative came to a head at a recent Just Want Privacy event in Tacoma, where LGBTQ activists interrupted, shouting: "Trans women are women!" and "Stop scapegoating trans people!" After the event, Backholm said on his podcast that the event showed how progressives are "social terrorists."
"There is no line of incivility they will not cross to prevent you from communicating what you believe and being engaged in the process," he said.
But Backholm has been ducking debates, even in more controlled settings. Askini says that in several instances, including a since-canceled interview on CNN, Backholm has refused to debate her, instead insisting that he debate a man or that Askini debate a woman from the Just Want Privacy campaign.
Backholm denies ever asking a man to represent Askini's side but confirms that he declined a CNN "conversation piece" after the network would not do the piece with a sexual assault survivor instead of Backholm. He says the CNN reporter "was hoping to make Danni look sympathetic."
Askini says Backholm's campaign "didn't like look of a man—the head of their organization, a white, cis, born again Christian"—debating her.
But make no mistake: Backholm is at the forefront of this movement in Washington.
He believes gay people are harmful for children and trans people are a "fiction." If I-1515 makes it to the November ballot, he will peddle the same anti-trans bigotry that his counterparts have peddled in every other state with a "bathroom debate." He will claim—without evidence—that allowing trans people a safe place to pee actually gives cover to straight men who want to prey on women and girls. He will claim that trans people are dangerous, that his efforts do not threaten their already vulnerable lives, and that women will be unsafe without his initiative's protection. And, like all of his claims that have come before, these will be bullshit.
What an asshole.
Additional reporting by Sydney Brownstone