On Wednesday, Just Want Privacy -- the group that formed as part of the backlash to the Human Rights Commission's transgender access-to-facilities rule -- filed their initiative with the Washington Secretary of State, which means that signature-gatherers are about to fan out to a street corner near you.
The campaign is co-led by the executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington and the president of the Washington Women's Network. And it is rapidly gaining momentum. If it collects roughly 267,000 valid signatures by July 8, voters are going to see an effort to repeal transgender rights on the November ballot.
To many -- including Mayor Ed Murray -- this is an extremist attack on transgender people, and a reminder to "remain vigilant" in the fight for LGBTQ rights, as the Mayor said in a statement following the narrow defeat of the Senate bill that would have done what this initiative is now attempting.
But the campaign's narrative is about "safety" and "privacy"; it paints a harrowing world in which a "dangerous bathroom rule" paves the way for rapists and peeping Toms to leer at and attack women and girls. It claims that it has no beef with transgender people, just with predatory men. Vitriolic comments on both sides of the issue pepper its Facebook page -- which had 2,390 Likes as of March 2 -- as well as alarmist news articles that exemplify the fears at play here, such as that men dressed as women or verbally identifying as transgender women can (and apparently do, once in a while) show up in women's bathrooms for lewd reasons.
It seems shocking to many that the clarification of a 2006 civil rights protection is creating such a furor. But because "transgender" does not, by its very definition, function in clear binaries, and because enforcing civil rights protections often requires common sense and human decency, as opposed to some kind of clear line in the sand, the fear-mongerers and bigots in the room are getting fierce and frightening.
To help you navigate these waters, we've compiled this handy cheat sheet to responses you can give if you encounter one of these signature gatherers, be it outside your grocery store or while visiting relatives in Eastern Washington.
Argument: State law now allows dudes to walk into women's locker rooms.
Rebuttal: First off, men cannot enter women's bathrooms, or locker rooms, or any kind of gender-segregated facility in the state of Washington, according to the Human Rights Commission (HRC). Transgender women can--and that right has been protected under state law since 2006.
So no, that guy who entered a women's locker room at Evans Pool in Green Lake on February 8 in no way "tests" the rule. The man didn't identify himself as a transgender woman, did not dress or appear or sound at all like a woman, and, as a result, was asked to leave--a request that pool staff had every right to make. "His behavior is inexcusable and reprehensible," an HRC statement released last Friday reads. "And it is absolutely not protected under the law. […] People who enter the wrong gender-segregated facility for nefarious purposes can be asked to leave under no uncertain terms."
'Nefarious purposes'? Is that enforceable?
Defining "nefarious purposes" can seem vague, but common sense is really the key here, says Laura Lindstrand, policy analyst for the HRC. "You can tell if someone is lying or if they're there for reasons they shouldn't be," she says. "Are they dressed like a woman? Are they making any attempt to look like a woman? What are their mannerisms like? Are they speaking low or high? If none of those things are present, or if the person seems sneaky or belligerent, the entity [i.e. Evans Pool] can take action." And if a business mistakenly misidentifies a transgender woman as a man and kicks her out, the HRC won't issue any fines or penalties; the outcome in the instance of an honest mistake would instead be conversation, education, and conflict resolution.
We have laws against inappropriate behavior in this state, Lindstrand adds. "Voyeurism, stalking, inappropriate touching, sexual assault -- those are all addressed under the criminal code." So if someone is in a locker room who shouldn't be, "as soon as that person starts to display inappropriate behavior, that can be dealt with immediately. If they're doing something they shouldn't be doing, they need to be made to leave, no matter who they are."
Fine, but it still feels like we're letting our guard down against predators.
The statistics on sexual assault show overwhelmingly that assaults happen between acquaintances in private spaces, not strangers in locker rooms. And transgender people are far more likely to be victims of sexual assault than anyone else -- one in two trans individuals have been sexually assaulted or abused in their lives, according to the federal Office for Victims of Crime.
Plus, Lindstrand reiterates, this law was clarified recently, but it has been in place for a whole decade. "We've been enforcing it consistently this entire time," she says. "We have not heard of one instance where someone has been abusing it" like the man at Evans Pool did.
Yes, sometimes the world is a scary place, but protecting civil rights does not cause violence. "There are many aspects of this world that aren't safe," says Lindstrand. "I don't think this rule increases that."
What if I'm still uncomfortable?
If you want privacy, ask for it. While the HRC doesn't have the power to mandate that every facility maintain private stalls ("we didn't think we could impose costs on businesses in that way," says Lindstrand, though they'll explore cost-effective options like shower curtains and dividers in discussions with stakeholders), the rule does "encourage entities to provide options for privacy" whenever possible.
Hmm. I think you've convinced me. Anything else you'd like to say?
Yes! This whole thing is a red herring. As Gender Justice League executive director Danni Askini, a transgender woman who has been both sexually assaulted and assaulted in a bathroom, said last weekend at Councilmember Kshama Sawant's People's Assembly, "A fight about where we can go to the bathroom is such a distraction from the real issues we're facing" -- both the transgender community, and society at large. "Like where we pee matters to anybody," she said. "Just let us pee in peace."
Sara Bernard writes about environment and education, among other things, for Seattle Weekly. She can be reached at email@example.com or 206-467-4370. Follow her on Twitter at @saralacy. Get more from your favorite writers by subscribing to our weekly newsletters.