By one vote, the Washington Senate voted down an attempt Wednesday to repeal a policy that allows transgender people to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.
Supporters of repealing the administrative rule, which took effect Dec. 26, said it allows predators to more easily gain access to restrooms and locker rooms, while others — mostly Democrats — blasted those criticisms as unfounded and prejudicial toward transgender people.
Senators voted 25-24 to maintain the policy the Human Rights Commission approved last year, which says that owners of businesses and other public facilities can’t force transgender people to use a bathroom or locker room that is inconsistent with their gender identity.
Several Democratic lawmakers who urged their colleagues to reject the repeal effort said the new rule merely clarifies an anti-discrimination law the Legislature approved in 2006.
“It makes the law clearer and more meaningful, and it makes those protections more at hand for the people who need them so desperately in our state,” said state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood.
“These are human beings; they deserve the same protections as every single one of us,” Liias said.
Those pushing to repeal the rule, meanwhile, said it was enacted quietly without enough public debate. State Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, said she’s received more concerned emails from citizens about the transgender bathroom access issue than about any other topic this year.
“We’re not trying to take people’s rights, we’re trying to address this as a privacy issue for small children whose parents are coming to us and saying, ‘what about us?’ ” said Angel, who voted to repeal the rule.
Some emphasized that they’re not worried about transgender people being aggressors, but rather about sex offenders posing as transgender people to gain access to facilities of the opposite gender.
“It’s not at all about transgender people,” said state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, adding that he thinks the state needs to be sensitive toward those individuals. “…The issue is other people who might be able to take advantage of that.”
Hargrove was the only Democrat to vote for the bill, outside of Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon, who caucuses with Senate Republicans. The repeal effort, Senate Bill 6443, was sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.
Three Republican senators — Andy Hill of Redmond, Steve Litzow of Mercer Island and Joe Fain of Auburn — voted with minority Democrats to maintain the rule allowing transgender people to access locker rooms that match their gender identity.
Several Democrats who supported keeping the law on the books said fears about abuse happening in locker rooms due to the new transgender access policy aren’t based in reality. State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said those who prey on others in restrooms can be punished through existing law.
“I’m happy to report that we have a good handful of criminal statutes that are available to make sure that they are not able to harass or ogle or do anything else inappropriate,” Pedersen said.
It’s rare for a bill to come up for a vote in the Senate and fail, as generally leaders don’t bring a measure to the floor unless it has enough support to pass. Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, didn’t return a call asking him to comment on the matter.
State Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, spoke in support of keeping the transgender restroom policy that is currently in place, saying that repealing it would roll back people’s civil liberties. During her floor speech, she praised the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties for developing a policy consistent with the new state rules.
After some debate, that YMCA now has rules that allow transgender members to use locker rooms and restrooms of the gender they identify with.
“It strikes a good balance, it does not victimize either side, it does not demean the values of either side in this issue, but it talks about real threats and real discrimination versus fear,” said Darneille, who said transgender people face violence and discrimination in their everyday lives.
Even had the measure passed the Republican-controlled Senate, it would have faced a difficult road in the Democratic-led House. State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, has declined to hold hearings for similar bills in the House Judiciary Committee, which she chairs.
Danni Askini, the executive director of the Gender Justice League in Seattle, said the bill’s failure in the Senate indicates to her that more people are listening to transgender people when they say they need protections.
“We’re incredibly grateful that we saw today we have bipartisan support for the rights of transgender people in the state of Washington,” Askini said. “I’m elated.”
Others were less thrilled with the Senate vote, including Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington. In a statement Wednesday, Backholm said senators had “voted to repeal the right to privacy that every person in Washington State has long expected in locker rooms and bathrooms.”
“In doing so, they have created legal protections for those who would access private spaces to do harm,” Backholm said. “They have also created significant liability for businesses and schools who would try to protect students and customers.”