In the big political circus tent known as the Washington state Capitol, most legislative sessions feature at least one sideshow – lots of noise and high emotion, a specter of dread looming over things unknown or poorly understood, but little to fear once the show leaves town.
This year’s version is the hullabaloo over restrooms, specifically whether the state should keep allowing transgender individuals to use toilets and locker rooms designated for the gender with which they identify. That’s been the official state policy for less than two months, unofficial practice for much longer.
State senators set the stage for a reversal last week, but their 25-24 vote ended up tilting in favor of bathroom choice. It was a gambit by the majority coalition – a dramatic end to a bill Republicans didn’t have to bring to the floor and must have known they would lose.
Then, five days later, the carnival came to Olympia. An evenly split group of nearly 350 demonstrators stood on the Capitol grounds Monday waving colorful signs, such as “Anatomy matters” and “We’re not here to dupe, we’re just here to poop.”
They came either to support or oppose the progressive transgender policy, adopted by the Washington Human Rights Commission last year to clarify a decade-old state equity law. They lined up on one side because they fear discrimination, on the other because they fear perversion.
Angela Connelly, president of the Washington Women’s Network, gave voice to the most extreme expression of the latter fear.
“This rule that is now mandated opens the door, literally, to pedophiles, to sexual assaulters, to rapists, to those who want to abuse,” Connelly said.
Similar overwrought rhetoric has been flying around Pierce County, where the YMCA in December finally settled on bathroom access rules consistent with the state policy.
No matter that most locker rooms doors are already wide open – have you been to a local YMCA lately? – or that the rule’s opponents can’t document an actual incident of lavatory crime committed by someone masquerading as a transgender person.
What’s most regrettable about this red-herring controversy is that it detracts from the real problem of vice and violence perpetrated against women and children. More than one third of Washington women have been sexually assaulted in their lives, and 80 percent were victimized before age 18, according to the state Office of Crime Victims Advocacy.
It also steals attention from real steps that state lawmakers are considering, and some they’ve already taken.
Let’s start with a fairly simple example: a bill, unanimously passed by the House last week, that would let authorities prosecute more voyeurs who watch or film someone in an intimate environment without her consent. You don’t have to look far to find potential applicable cases – “upskirt” photographers at shopping malls, a Tacoma private school coach recently caught watching students change clothes through a storage closet window.
Legislators are also quietly doing important work helping schools establish sexual abuse curricula and response plans. They’re creating a statewide system for tracking rape kits so assailants don’t fall through the cracks. They’re strategizing to make sure the state has enough sexual assault nurse examiners. They’re being aggressive in the fight against human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children, including Internet crimes.
With good, bipartisan work like this to their credit, it’s strange that lawmakers would play election-year politics with the bogeyman in the bathroom, which needlessly stokes fears of transgender people.
Stranger still is that so many of us would accept tickets to the sideshow.