The debate over allowing transgender individuals to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity has moved from local YMCAs to the state Capitol.
Several Republican lawmakers want to rein in Washington state’s new rules that say businesses and public entities must let transgender people use facilities consistent with the gender they identify with, regardless of whether they’ve undergone sex reassignment surgery.
Critics say the new rules create the potential for people who aren’t transgender to prey on people of the opposite sex, while violating people’s expectations of privacy when undressing in locker rooms.
Others say concerns about potential abuse are unfounded and that the new rules merely clarify a 2006 anti-discrimination law that has allowed transgender people to use restrooms of the gender they identify with for almost a decade.
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“To me, this is a lot about fear-mongering,” said state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, a Tacoma Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
The administrative rule change was approved by the state’s Human Rights Commission in November and went into effect last month, prompting policy changes at some organizations, such as the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties. After some debate, that YMCA now allows transgender members to use locker rooms and restrooms of the gender they identify with, consistent with the new state rules.
State Rep. Graham Hunt, R-Orting, said he plans to introduce a bill next week that would once again let businesses limit access to gender-specific facilities based on a person’s genitalia.
In his view, only those who have a undergone sex reassignment surgery or those born a certain sex should use that gender’s restroom, he said.
“If you’re non-operative or pre-operative, having access to a facility that is different from the genitalia that you have, that’s where the security concerns come in,” Hunt said.
Another Republican lawmaker, state Sen. Doug Ericksen, said he would support repealing the rule entirely. He said the rules violate people’s expectation that they will be undressing in locker rooms with only members of the same sex, while creating a “huge burden” on businesses.
“The state should not be requiring private businesses and local school districts to allow men in the women’s bathrooms,” said Ericksen, R-Ferndale. “If you own a gym, it should not be your duty to determine who qualifies to go into which locker room.”
But advocates for transgender individuals say that requiring them to use restrooms inconsistent with their gender identity can open them up to violence and harassment.
“To force transgender women to bear the burden of being in a men’s locker room ... how many women would feel comfortable going into a men’s locker room and changing?” asked Danni Askini, executive director of the Seattle-based Gender Justice League. “You want to talk about risk — that’s a significant risk.”
According to a 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, more than half of transgender respondents reported “being verbally harassed or disrespected in a place of public accommodation.”
Nearly 80 percent of people who were openly transgender at K-12 schools reported harassment in school settings, while 35 percent reported being physically assaulted at schools. Additionally, 41 percent of transgender people who responded had attempted suicide.
Even a policy change to require transgender individuals to use private or separate restrooms could lead to their being singled out and targeted, Askini said.
Many people also have difficulty accessing or affording sex reassignment surgery, so making bathroom access contingent on that is problematic, she said.
“We just want to pee in peace. We just want to go to the bathroom,” Askini said. “And that’s like, how fundamental and basic can that be? And we want to do that in a way that’s safe for us and that doesn’t draw unnecessary attention to us.”
Both Hunt and Ericksen said they think the recent rule change took lawmakers and many members of the public by surprise. This week, some people planned to protest the new policy at the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties by picketing outside several YMCA locations.
Ericksen said he thinks the policy change should have been approved by the Legislature, rather by a rule-making agency such as the Human Rights Commission.
However, the Human Rights Commission’s executive director said the commission was just implementing anti-discrimination policies that the Legislature approved in 2006. That year, lawmakers added “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the list of protected classes under the state’s anti-discrimination laws, which extends to discrimination in places of public accommodation, said Sharon Ortiz, the agency’s executive director.
The agency held four work sessions across the state in 2012 to gather public opinion on how the law should be implemented, but few people showed up — “less than 12 at most of them,” Ortiz said.
More recently, the commission held a final public hearing on the proposed rules in June at the Oasis Youth Center in Tacoma, Ortiz said.
Ortiz said illegal or inappropriate behavior is still prohibited in restrooms and locker rooms, regardless of a person’s gender identity. It also could be difficult for business owners who wish to limit access to determine who was assigned male or female at birth, or who has undergone a transition, she said.
The law legislators approved in 2006 doesn’t tie gender identity or expression to whether someone has undergone a hormonal or surgical transition.
“How are they going to know? They have to bring a note from their doctor? I don’t understand how that could work,” Ortiz said, adding: “We don’t create the laws, we just enforce them.”
Although proposals to change the rules adopted by the Human Rights Commission could gain ground in the Republican-led state Senate, they would face barriers in the state House, which has a slim Democratic majority.
Jinkins, whose committee oversees the state’s anti-discrimination laws, said she won’t hold hearings on bills that propose to roll back the regulations.
She said the comfort of all groups needs to be taken into account.
“Making sure there’s spaces for everyone to feel comfortable is kind of what’s important,” Jinkins said. “It’s not one person’s comfort that should take precedence over another person’s comfort.”
“There needs to be some balance, and I think the rules do that.”