Transgender bathroom initiative already a hot debate in Washington state

Initiative 1515 would allow public and private-sector segregation of bathrooms and locker rooms by birth gender or biology. It would also prevent local governments from enacting laws that protect gender identity as a valid reason for a bathroom choice.
Initiative 1515 would allow public and private-sector segregation of bathrooms and locker rooms by birth gender or biology. It would also prevent local governments from enacting laws that protect gender identity as a valid reason for a bathroom choice. Thinkstock

Restricting which bathrooms transgender people can use might seem like an unexpected ballot question, but get ready to hear a lot more about it.

In an effort led by Angela Connelly of Tacoma, Initiative 1515 is potentially headed for the statewide ballot in November. Along the way, it’s likely to further amplify an already-escalating debate over transgender rights.

The measure would allow public and private-sector segregation of bathrooms and locker rooms by birth gender or biology. It would also prevent local governments from enacting laws that protect gender identity as a valid reason for a bathroom choice.

Another provision would require public schools to enforce birth gender-specific restrooms, locker rooms and shower room policies or face civil liability.

Backers need 246,372 signatures from registered voters by July 8 to get the issue before voters in the high-turnout election. Connelly said Friday the campaign has collected about 200,000 signatures so far.

Supporters have framed the issue as a matter of protecting women and girls from sex-crime predation. Opponents see the initiative as outright bias that puts transgender people at risk of becoming victims and opens the door to wider discrimination.

The initiative’s origins can be traced to December, after a state Human Rights Commission ruling on gender identity took effect and gained notice. It said the state’s 2006 nondiscrimination law for sexual orientation meant transgender people could choose a men’s or women’s room based on the gender with which they identify.

Connelly said this “overly broad” reading creates the potential for men with bad intentions to enter facilities where women and girls are exposed.

“Basically, the practical effect of that is that any male has a right to that private space for females,” Connelly said. “... This is a global issue that is unnavigated.”

The perception that the initiative could put transgender people in danger has stirred opposition across a swath of the lesbian and gay community and their allies.

“If we do start taking these rights, is it not OK for the other gay rights?” said Jeremy Wekell, a gay Tacoma resident who opposes I-1515. He is not transgender.

He says the terms and timing of I-1515 raise the question of whether it is a culture-war counterattack after years of gay-rights progress milestones, such as the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gay marriage should be legal nationwide and the military’s abandonment of prohibitions on gay and transgender troops.

“This is sort of a slight retaliation to start whittling away at those rights and those benefits of all the people in our community that don’t match some perfect little ideal,” said Wekell.

I-1515 and its supporters

Connelly said I-1515’s stated goal is to roll back the Human Rights Commission’s ruling and create safe accommodations for everyone, including transgender students and adults.

She has nine children and said she has no bias against gay or transgender people. Her husband, Jack Connelly, a prominent Tacoma attorney, opposed gay marriage in his unsuccessful 2012 run for state Senate.

“We want to protect transgender kids,” Angela Connelly said of the initiative. “We want to protect boys. We want to protect girls. It feels like that overly broad HRC mandate does not do that.”

She said the state panel’s decision means a loss of privacy without any ability to object to the incursion.

The danger, she said, comes from “these non-transgender sexual predators who are out there,” such as a man arrested at Bellevue College after wearing a pink wig and hiding in a restroom to film women in January 2015.

“We’re told that there are schools opening up the bathrooms and the showers (to everyone), which is absolutely unacceptable,” she said. “They’re all required to do it by the HRC mandate.”

VIDEO: Fiery defense of repealing non-discrimination protections in Washington

Kaeley Triller Haver, communications director for Just Want Privacy, the campaign promoting I-1515, was one of several speakers who described the reasons for the measure to a sharply divided UW Tacoma audience

Derrick Nunnally dnunnally@thenewstribune.co m

Disagreement on this point has been substantial, starting even before the I-1515 petition supporters began collecting signatures in April.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued an opinion in February that said the ruling still means anyone in a locker room or restroom for an improper reason — such as a man pretending to be transgender — could be required to leave or face criminal prosecution.

“Contrary to some concerns,” he wrote, “the law does not create a requirement that all locker rooms now be ‘unisex.’ The law also does not allow men to use women’s locker rooms.”

Kaeley Triller Haver, a spokeswoman for I-1515 support group Just Want Privacy, lost her job as communications director for the YMCA of Kitsap and Pierce Counties in 2015 after that organization publicly grappled with how its locker rooms would accommodate transgender members. Months of policy back-and-forth resulted in the YMCA’s December announcement that members can use restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

Triller Haver said at a June press conference for I-1515 that she considers the situation a matter of necessary privacy.

“If we’re going to say that we believe in ‘my body, my choice,’ then I sure as hell should have a choice about who gets to see it when I shower,” Triller Haver said. “It is imperative to me that the first time my daughter sees a naked male form, it is because she has chosen it, not because somebody else has bullied their way into her locker room.”

The case against I-1515

Transgender activists said the initiative, if enacted, would have harmful consequences.

Aidan Key, a gender counselor in Burien, was born a woman. He describes himself now as “a handsome, mature man with a beard” and a wife. The initiative, he said, would force him into women’s restrooms, regardless of his masculine countenance.

“Guess who’s not going to feel very safe if I walk into that restroom?” Key asked. “And how this might be implemented is beyond my comprehension. I mean, I don’t know how to wrap my mind around it. We don’t know what genitals a person has.”

Seth Kirby, director of Tacoma’s Oasis Youth Center, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender support agency, is chairman of Washington Won’t Discriminate, the campaign against I-1515.

Kirby, a transgender man, said the initiative could have troubling economic consequences for the state if it passes. He likened it to a North Carolina law enacted earlier this year that created birth-gender bathroom requirements and eliminated anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people.

Since that law’s passage, individuals and organizations — including Washington’s state government — have boycotted doing business in North Carolina. Kirby said businesses from Ironworks Construction to Microsoft have aligned in opposition to the initiative.

“It really would take away millions from our economy each year on conventions, tourism and business,” Kirby said.

Additionally, he said, the potential fiscal harm for schools could reach into the billions, between litigation costs and lost federal funding due to violation of national anti-discrimination laws.

Miriam Barnett, chief executive officer of the Pierce County YWCA, said the initiative’s change to state law “causes the same oppression that caused domestic violence” by increasing discrimination. She said its benefits aren’t as they’re being promoted.

“The whole concept that they keep repeating, that this will allow men to dress like women to go into bathrooms to rape and accost women, so it’s a safety issue, is such a huge misperception of what this is really about, because that a) hasn’t happened, and b) that’s not really, typically how rapes occur.”

A charged debate

Even before making the ballot, I-1515 is provoking heated debate in a variety of venues.

In a video on the Just Want Privacy website promoting I-1515, Joseph Backholm, director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington and another leader of campaign, asks for clergy to help find safety and theological problems with the current policy.

“Not only does it, as a spiritual matter, challenge whether God actually made us male or female,” Backholm said, “but as a practical matter, it provides opportunity for people who are predators to have access to places they don’t belong and to do harm. We know it’s a problem.”

Backholm’s other work for the measure has drawn criticism. KIRO 7 aired recordings of Backholm encouraging petition gatherers to follow women into public restrooms if they wouldn’t sign.

Attorney General Ferguson called the suggestion “ridiculous” in a statement and said such conduct could constitute criminal trespassing or harassment.

In a Twitter interview, Gov. Jay Inslee said the initiative “must be defeated” and that it would “legally allow discrimination against people who are transgendered.”

The mayors of Tacoma and Seattle have spoken against it.

At the June press conference Connelly organized at the University of Washington Tacoma for advocates of the initiative, a shouted debate with I-1515 protesters in the audience emerged. Many audience members were escorted out by University security. One of several protest signs carried outside the event read “Trans women are women. Bigots go home.”

Inside, a crowd of about 100 people listened and answered back as speakers attempted to make a case for the initiative.

“What we want to talk about is bathroom safety for everybody,” Maya Dillard Smith, who left a position as director of the ACLU of Georgia in a debate over similar legislation, said in one exchange, “but if you had been listening, you would’ve known that.”

Reactions to the petition

On a recent day of signature-gathering at the Lakewood farmers market, Kevin Wilson put his I-1515 clipboard at the bottom of his stack of other initiative petitions.

It was, Wilson said, the most controversial topic in his hand, and he didn’t even bother presenting it until he’d had a chance to evaluate how his audience reacted to less-controversial subjects.

“I always have that last,” said Wilson, a paid signature gatherer. “I can gauge a person. The last thing I want is to be yelled at or to be called a name.”

Patricia Lott, 55, of Lakewood, a retired psychologist and lecturer at St. Martin’s University, responded favorably when Wilson explained the initiative to her and inked her name to it.

“As a grandmother, I’m concerned about my granddaughter,” she said. “At the age of 8, she shouldn’t have to try to determine if there’s somebody there who doesn’t need to be.”

Trangender people, she said, should be given separate facilities.

“If they want to do that, make a third bathroom and let them use it,” she said.

VIDEO: Protest for and against transgender locker room rules

Video of a protest and counter protest of a new rule in Washington state that allows transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. The protest and counter protest took place at the state Capitol in Olympia February 15, 2016.

Melissa Santos msantos@thenewstribune.com

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally

Initiative 1515

Purpose: Initiative 1515 would give Washington public and private agencies authority to set a biological gender requirement for single-sex bathrooms and create rules for use of public school restrooms and locker rooms.

Requirement: The initiative needs 246,372 registered voters’ signatures by Friday (July 8), to make the November ballot.

Current status: As of Friday, supporters had gathered 190,000 signatures.

Goal: The goal is 300,000 signatures to allow for a fraction being thrown out as invalid.