“She was just helping,” laments Beau Ohlgren, head of the Jefferson County Transgender Support Group.
He’s referring to an 18-year-old employee of the YMCA’s Mountain View Pool in Port Townsend, a small town that lies northwest of Seattle across Puget Sound.
Three weeks ago, that employee was doing her job of supervising a group of kids when a patron named Julie Jaman began to hurl increasingly aggressive transphobic remarks at her. Other employees told Jaman to leave, but she later returned to picket the facility. Conservative media picked up the story, people started threatening YMCA employees, and now the entire facility has had to temporarily close due to those threatening messages.
The conflict aimed an uncomfortable spotlight on the nautical town of about 10,000 residents, where news headlines tend to focus on art fairs and gardening tips. As local leaders scramble to address the situation, community members have turned out in large numbers to support the YMCA employee, a college student pursuing a career in elementary education.
“I had gotten a call on July 26, when the harassment occurred,” Ohlgren says. The YMCA manager told Ohlgren that Jaman heard the employee speak and decided that her voice was too "male." Jaman confronted the employee in a locker room, accused her of engaging in inappropriate behavior with the children, and asked invasive questions about her genitals. YMCA officials told the Port Townsend Leader that multiple employees were present, as their regulations require, and that there was no inappropriate behavior on the part of any YMCA staffer.
The YMCA pool manager told Jaman to leave and suspended her membership. Following that, the manager contacted Ohlgren to double-check state requirements regarding accommodations. (Washington offers broad protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and the state prohibits forms of harassment that include asking invasive, unwanted questions.)
After speaking with the pool manager, Ohlgren couldn’t get the incident out of his mind. “I kept thinking about what a horrible experience that is, when someone is at the beginning of their transition process … to get screamed at about your genitals in a bathroom, that’s a number one nightmare for a lot of trans people,” he said.
A few days after the incident, Ohlgren asked the YMCA if he could send the employee a care package, at which point he learned that the facility had been receiving threatening phone calls. He also learned that Jaman had returned to the YMCA with some friends to protest, bearing signs that misgendered the employee.
“They were approaching everybody coming to and from the pool, saying ‘did you know there are men in the women’s bathroom, there needs to be a separate facility if trans people are going to use the facility,’” Ohlgren said.
Barring people from facilities because they are trans violates state rules established by the Washington State Human Rights Commission.
Sensing trouble, Ohlgren called some friends and assembled a counter-protest to voice their support for the worker and the YMCA. He estimates that around a hundred people showed up, creating a positive, festive mood by bringing carnival games and hula hoops. “We just want this to not be a terrible place to work, thank you,” Ohlgren said.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Over the next few days, national media took notice of the dispute, with right-wing influencers exploiting the situation to drive outrage. Threatening calls started pouring into the YMCA, prompting them to shut down the entire facility for several days, leaving many local families without child care services.
In addition, numerous residents showed up at the August 1 city council meeting. Some voiced support for Jaman, and others supported the YMCA employee. In response, Port Townsend City Council is now considering a resolution affirming their support for transgender residents and inclusive policies. Council members are expected to discuss the resolution at their next meeting on Monday, August 15.
If there’s a silver lining to the experience, it’s that supporters of the YMCA employee have given generously to a GoFundMe that she established five months ago to pay for transition-related care. Previously hovering at around $200, it’s now passed the $7,000 mark on the way to a goal of $25,000.
“What we’re trying to do is ensure that not only does she feel safe and supported, but that she feels valued in our community, and the entire trans community here in town feels safe and supported,” Ohlgren said.