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Pierce, Kitsap YMCA transgender policy sets off a storm

Aaron Stevens, left, Fran Norman and Seth Kirby stand in front of the downtown YMCA on Thursday. They are unhappy with the Y’s policy on transgender people. Stevens is father to a transgender son, Norman is transgender, and Kirby is the director of the Oasis Youth Center.
Aaron Stevens, left, Fran Norman and Seth Kirby stand in front of the downtown YMCA on Thursday. They are unhappy with the Y’s policy on transgender people. Stevens is father to a transgender son, Norman is transgender, and Kirby is the director of the Oasis Youth Center. Staff photographer

A policy governing the use of local YMCA locker rooms and restrooms by transgender members has upset some of its members. And a rewrite of the policy has offended the people it was meant to help.

The policy clarifies how transgender people can use locker rooms at YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties branches based on the status of their gender transition.

It also mixes gender issues with child abuse concerns.

The Y first formulated a policy in April, but did not publicly announce it because officials didn’t think it needed to be broadcast to the entire membership, said senior vice president Michelle LaRue.

The initial policy stated that members could use locker rooms and restrooms of the gender they identified with.

The policy was made by Y leaders and did not involve transgender community members or Y members.

Last week, when talk of the new policy began to spread unofficially, the topic went viral on social media platforms with a mostly negative reaction to the policy itself and that it had not been publicized.

In response, Y officials had a community forum Sunday at the Mel Korum YMCA. The session was announced just hours before it was to start; about 40 people attended, Y officials said.

On Monday, Y President and CEO Bob Ecklund put out a modification of the policy. Now it’s based on the type of facility (family or adult Y) and whether individuals are in transition or have completed their change.

Under the revised policy:

▪ At family facilities, transgender members in transition must use private locker rooms for dressing and showering.

Transgender members can use standalone restrooms that align with their gender identification at those facilities.

▪ At adult facilities, transgender members and those in transition can use locker rooms and restrooms that align with their gender identification.

LaRue said the Y wrote the policy to be pro-active and on the record.

No transgender members had complained about how they were treated, and no other Y members had complained about transgender members, she said.

“We implemented this policy to say we welcome you, you can use the locker rooms of the gender which you identify and (we) had no problem,” LaRue said.

However, some transgender Y members say the policy is a backward step made out of unfounded fears and prejudice.

“To tell people that they have to be separated because of who they are is discrimination,” said Seth Kirby, a transgender man and a Y member.

“(The new policy) seems to be in opposition to the YMCA’s philosophy of inclusion and respect,” said Kirby, the director of Oasis Youth Center, a Tacoma drop-in facility for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth.

LaRue said she didn’t know what last week triggered the sudden flood of complaints about the policy.

“But they did (complain) so we listened,” she said. “We had hundreds, if not more than a thousand, comments on this subject.”

Members raised concerns about protecting children from inappropriate exposure to nudity and about nontransgender individuals posing as transgender individuals and walking into a locker room and exposing themselves, LaRue said.

Several members who expressed concerns or threatened to cancel their membership did not return requests for comment from The News Tribune.

LaRue could cite no incidences where someone posed as transgender to enter an opposite gender locker room.

The rooms do not have the same freedom of access that a public locker room has. Use requires a Y membership. New members are screened for sex offenses when they join and the entire membership is reviewed every three months. Those with convictions are not allowed to enter.

After Ecklund released the modified policy, most comments from Y members have been positive, LaRue said.

But another element of the new policy is not sitting well with the transgender community.

In the introduction, Ecklund welcomes diversity and then immediately turns to child abuse.

“As a community-based nonprofit organization, we are committed to reflecting the diverse communities we serve,” he said. “We also have a foundational commitment to child abuse prevention.”

Later in the statement, a section goes into depth on measures to prevent child abuse.

It’s important that the Y has a child abuse prevention policy, Kirby said, “but confusing child abuse prevention response with transgender people is really uninformed at best and discriminatory.”

He said it was “disappointing that the YMCA is playing into the stereotypes about transgender people: that we’re threatening, that we’re scary, not safe to be around children and kept away from other people.”

Tacoma resident and Y member Fran Norman was critical of the connection as well.

“Equating child abuse to transgender is insulting,” said 71-year-old Norman, who transitioned to a woman in the 1980s. “I don’t have enough adjectives to describe that.”

LaRue said the Y’s policy statement was confusing and that the child abuse references were intended to reflect the possibility of nontransgender people gaining access to locker rooms.

It was not intended to besmirch transgender people by conflating the two subjects, she said.

“We see them as separate issues,” LaRue said. “That didn’t come clear enough in the written statement from Bob.”

She repeatedly emphasized that the Y takes its members’ concerns seriously and also is dedicated to creating a safe and welcoming place for all of its members.

“We’ve heard a lot from our members who are concerned and we want the LGBT community’s voice heard as well if they have concerns,” LaRue said.

The LGBT community does have concerns. Leaders and members say the Y’s hasty policy rewrite has created a separate-but-equal, confusing and unwelcoming atmosphere at the Y.

“It’s something that should have been looked at and vetted by community leaders, people like Oasis Center and Rainbow Center,” said Y member Aaron Stevens, the father of a transgender son.

The policy does not recognize the complexity of transitioning, Kirby said.

“Transitioning is a medical, social, legal, spiritual process,” he said. Individuals can choose all or some of those components and on varying levels and time frames.

LaRue said the Y will not ascertain the level of transition of its members.

Stevens’ 20-year-old son, Alex Hope, began transitioning a year ago but has not undergone any medical procedures or hormone therapy.

He uses the Tacoma Center YMCA with his family which includes his father. They change their clothes in the men’s locker room.

“That’s where I feel most comfortable,” Hope said. “It has nothing to do with anyone else.”

When Hope moved back to Tacoma from Portland earlier this year, Stevens called the Y to see whether his son could use the men’s locker room.

“Their answer, which I was kind of flabbergasted by was, ‘Whatever he is most comfortable is we are most comfortable with, regardless of gender assignment,’ ” Stevens said.

When Hope did begin working out, Stevens said, the Y staff was supportive.

“They were actually advocates for us, helping other people understand what was going on,” he said.

Norman said the roughly yearlong period she has been a member of the Y and using the women’s locker room has been a positive experience.

“I’ve never had a problem other than a sideways glance,” Norman said.

She appreciates the offer of private dressing rooms at the Y.

“Providing that accommodation provides a safe environment for a trans person,” she said.

Hope also likes the idea of gender-neutral bathrooms and changing rooms as an option.

“But to have that as part of the rules is appalling,” he said. “The last time I heard of a policy like that it had to do with someone’s race. It just adds to the stigma that we are freaks.”

“Are we supposed to come forth and confess that we’re transgendered?” Kirby said. “Who am I supposed to talk to about this? Am I supposed to walk up to the person at the front desk and say, ‘Hi. I’m transgender and I’m curious if I’ve completed transition to your standards’.”

Kirby, Norman and other members and leaders of the LGBT community say they are willing to work with the Y to reformulate its policies.

“I think they are a good organization,” Norman said. “I hate to see them make fools of themselves like this.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

@crsailor

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