Pierce, Kitsap YMCAs release new locker room policy

The Gordon Family YMCA in Sumner is the newest location in Pierce County.
The Gordon Family YMCA in Sumner is the newest location in Pierce County. lwong@thenewstribune.com

Under a policy taking effect Monday, transgender members of the YMCA will once again be able to use the locker rooms and restrooms of their gender identity.

The revised and broadly worded nondiscrimination policy, announced Tuesday, will cover 120,000 members and 40,000 program participants at Y facilities in Pierce and Kitsap counties.

Staff members are being trained, and new signage will be installed, officials said.

There will be safeguards in place when the new policy begins, said Michelle LaRue, spokeswoman for YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties.

“It’s not an open-door-no-questions-asked policy,” she said. “We will respectfully ask that (transgender members) self-identify their gender in our database and then use a locker room consistent with that identity.”

Members and staff will be empowered to question anyone headed toward or in a locker room that they feel might be inconsistent with that member’s normal practice.

“Or maybe if that person looks like they are going to be malicious or harmful, they have every right to stop that member and engage in a very respectful and private conversation,” LaRue said.

If needed, Y staff will assist, she said.

In addition, the Y’s board earlier voted to spend about $1 million to upgrade and enhance the privacy of Y changing areas, LaRue said. Private changing rooms will become more common, she said.

“We did know the way of the future in our locker rooms was privacy,” she said.

The new policy is part of a revised policy first formulated in April. 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 and was not announced to Y membership.

In October, talk of the policy began to spread via social media and word of mouth. Some members were critical of the policy and voiced concerns that it had not been publicized in April.

In response, the Y on Oct. 5 put out a revamped policy that rolled back some of the locker room and restroom access given to transgender members, basically segregating them.

That, in turn, set off a backlash from transgender members.

The Y has spent the last 90 days engaging with members, staff members, community leaders, elected officials, the attorney general’s office and LGBT advocacy groups.

It also solicited member comments.

“We had a collection of hundreds of emails, statements and letters from our members and encouraged them to send those in,” LaRue said. “We compiled all of that to make an informed decision.

“It was an attempt to not repeat the mistake of decision-making in a vacuum that occurred last time.”

Tuesday’s announcement was greeted positively by some, notably transgender members.

“Transgender people, just like everyone else, can make decisions for their own well-being, safety and what their routine is at the gym,” said Seth Kirby, the director of Oasis Youth Center, a Tacoma drop-in facility for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

“That’s what this is about: to make those decisions for themselves. The policy before required that some people could not make that decision for themselves,” Kirby said.

Cheryl Cristello, a transgender woman and Y member, called the policy “a very positive step, a necessary step.”

“The thing that’s really surprised me are the friendships I’ve made at the Y and some of the amazing conversations we have in the (women’s) locker room and the sauna,” said the 69-year-old Gig Harbor resident.

Some Y members are quitting over the new policy, however.

LaRue said she did not know how many but said, “We hope everyone feels welcomed and included at the Y. We respect the decision of all 120,000 member on whether to remain a member at the Y.”

Rich Stuart of South Hill said he suspended his family’s membership Saturday when the direction the Y was headed became clear. He was one of several members who met with Y officials.

Stuart and other members expressed several concerns, the chief of which are the safety of children, mixed gender nudity and trauma to sexual abuse victims.

The concerns were not over transgender members, they say.

“We’ve been referred to as ignorant, thinking that transgenders are sex abusers or child molesters,” Stuart said. “No one in our group has said anything like that.

“We know that the transgenders have a hard life. We wouldn’t want any more harm to come to them than they already have in their lives.”

He said he wants the Y to return to a status in which no policies govern transgender members.

“We think no policy is the best policy,” he said.

Stuart, like some other members, said he welcomes transgender members at the Y, but not necessarily in areas where nudity occurs.

“(The transgender community) see it is a matter of inclusion,” he said. “We think they can be included in other ways other than sharing showers, bathrooms and locker rooms with the opposite sex.”

Henry Waymack, 33, of Tacoma, facilitates a transgender men’s group at Tacoma’s Rainbow Center, a resource center for LGBT community members. Though he’s not a Y member, he might become one now, he said.

“It looks like they’re going in the right direction,” said Waymack, a transgender man. “It makes me want to join because I feel like I would be welcomed there. I would have equal access to the facilities they have available.”

Jill Wade and her two children are members of the Y. The Spanaway woman volunteers at the Mel Korum Family YMCA in Puyallup. She feels the new policy is a step backward.

“It’s dangerous to have a policy where people of the opposite sex can go into any locker room they choose,” Wade said.

“We’ve moved from one small segment of the population feeling uncomfortable in their locker room to a much larger segment of people feeling uncomfortable in their locker room.”

Wade said she plans to drop her membership at the YMCA.

“There are other facilities that are more respectful of privacy than the Y is,” she said.

Kaeley Triller Haver, a former communications director with the YMCA of Kitsap and Pierce Counties, said she lost her job because of the new policy.

Triller Haver said she was assigned in March to work on the new policy.

She said she told the Y’s board that the organization was not being honest with its members regarding its motivations. She also told a few members about the new policy.

A former sexual abuse victim, Triller Haver said the work triggered post-traumatic stress disorder. She went on medical leave Nov. 12.

On Nov. 30, she was told she was being fired for inappropriate communication with members.

“They gave me two options,” Triller Haver said. “Either I could be fired and get paid for that day or I could resign and take a severance package which included benefits and severance pay for 10 weeks if I agreed not to say anything about this.”

She chose to be fired that day.

“I have to be able to speak,” she said.

LaRue, the Y spokeswoman, would not comment on Triller Haver.

“We can’t speak to personnel matters on current or former employees out of respect for their privacy,” LaRue said.

She added that the Y has been above board on all of its dealings with the policy and acting in compliance with the law.

“I can sleep at night,” LaRue said.

YMCA facilities do not have the same freedom of access that a public locker room, such as a park, 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.

The Y’s new policy makes it comply with new state rules regarding public accommodations for individuals’ gender identity. The legally binding rules go into effect at the end of 2015.

The Y’s previous policy did not comply with nondiscriminatory aspects of the law, said state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, who met with Y officials about the new policy.

The new language from the state’s Human Rights Commission reads:

“All covered entities shall allow individuals the use of gender-segregated facilities, such as restrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms, and homeless or emergency shelters, that are consistent with that individual’s gender identity.”

Jinkins has three YMCAs in her district and has been a Y member for nearly 30 years.

“Everyone is on a continuum about these issues,” she said.

“Some people learned 25 or 30 years ago and were perfectly prepared for this policy to happen. Other people are never going to move on it. Everybody else is in the middle, and they’re moving in their own direction of acceptance and inclusion.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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