State senator Steve O'Ban (R-Pierce County) cracked open a can of carbonated something before settling into his vice chair's seat on the state senate's Law and Justice Committee, where dozens of people had signed up to testify about the "Genital Check" bill.
It's not every day that state legislators hold public hearings on how to match penises and vaginas to their owners, but the hearing on SB 6548 concerned just that. Sponsors of the bill—all Republicans, including the chair of the Law and Justice Committee sitting to O'Ban's left—were concerned about cis women and children being exposed to transgender people's parts in sex-segregated bathrooms. SB 6548 would amend state antidiscrimination law to allow businesses, organizations, and individuals to turn transgender people away from using segregated bathrooms and locker rooms.
The bill's primary sponsor insisted the legislation was harmless.
"This bill simply segregates genders until they are postoperative," SB 6548 sponsor Judy Warnick (R-Moses Lake) told O'Ban and the rest of his committee. "I don't think we are trying to discriminate." (It would appear Warnick assumes all transgender people want or can afford to have expensive and complicated reassignment surgery.)
At two separate hearings in Olympia over the past month, legislators have advanced the argument that allowing transgender people to use public toilets and locker rooms invites sexual predators to prey on cis women and girls. A total of six bills in the state legislature now endorse the idea. But while four other bills dealing with transgender people in bathrooms have been filed in the state house of representatives, Representative Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has vowed not to give them a hearing. The only reason public testimony for SB 6548 was being heard—like public testimony was heard for SB 6443, the other anti-trans bathroom bill, on January 25—was because senate Republicans made it a priority.
Republicans in the state senate either don't know or don't care that this is a dangerous argument. It may score them points with a conservative base, but just the hearings could have harrowing repercussions for the trans community.
"It is doing very real damage to the trans community, especially to trans youth, to hear this endless testimony that trans people are dangerous and associating us with pedophiles and perpetrators of sexual assault," Danni Askini, executive director of the Gender Justice League, said. "It's scaring the shit out of the entire community. People are afraid to use public facilities."
According to the US Department of Justice, more than 50 percent of transgender people experience sexual violence in their lifetimes—at least six percentage points higher than the overall rate of sexual violence for cis women. Trans women, particularly trans women of color, face even greater odds of being sexually assaulted or murdered.
Askini, who is trans, has firsthand experience with the type of violence that can follow hearings like these. When she was a sophomore in high school in Maine, voters repealed a statewide nondiscrimination law in a ballot initiative. Askini had just come out. "[It] sent a really clear signal to the bullies in my high school that I was fair game," she said. "Three days later is when I was the victim of a hate crime."
While senate Republican sponsors of the bill claim their concerns are about children, many parents of transgender youth testified about the risks their children would face were the bill to pass.
Lisa Hesse, a self-described "lifelong Republican" and the mother of a 19-year-old transgender son, told legislators at the SB 6548 hearing that "at six-foot-three, 400 pounds, and with a full mustache, beard, and deep booming voice, my son has finally achieved peace." But if 6548 were to pass, her son would be forced to use the women's restroom.
"As a mother, I cannot help but be aware of the grim statistics of violence that is disproportionately experienced by transgender individuals," Hesse said. "I fear getting a call one day and my son never coming home."
Not long after Hesse's testimony, 16-year-old Leah Neiman spoke. "I am not afraid of truly transgender people, but I do not feel comfortable with the idea of a person who is biologically male in the bathroom where I am," Neiman said. "Also the prospect of someone who is not sincerely transgender taking advantage of this situation makes me extremely nervous."
In addition to Neiman, cis women survivors of sexual assault and another teen girl testified during the public hearings that they'd be scared to share a locker room with a trans stranger. Never mind that the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 6 out of 10 rape or sexual-assault victims know their attacker as an intimate partner, family member, friend, or acquaintance. Never mind that in a couple of years, when the teens who testified in support of the bills go to college, an average 9 out of 10 sexual-assault victims on their college campuses will know their attackers.
Instead of informing teens about the realities of sexual assault, legislators are using them as pawns. Those same teens are being taught to fear a community that suffers from some of the highest rates of sexual victimization in the country, but not taught to recognize the much larger threat of straight, cisgender men they may already know.
Two days after the hearing, O'Ban's committee passed the Genital Check bill along party lines. It's unlikely the bill will pass the full legislature, not with a Democratic majority in the house and, if worst comes to worst, Governor Jay Inslee is certain to veto. But the damage from the public hearings has already been done.