With all the pressing issues that face our state — education funding, mental health services, unemployment — sadly, one of the biggest battlefields in this Washington state legislative session has been public bathrooms. Rules around bathroom access have historically been used to enforce boundaries of discrimination under the pretense of safety, situations addressed by the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, but all it took to set us back, opening up a new front of transgendered bathroom bigotry and lies, was clarifying a 10-year-old nondiscrimination law.
Six bills have been introduced this session to repeal a rule enacted by the Washington State Human Rights Commission last December — a rule that required public buildings to allow transgender individuals to use the restrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with. On the books since 2006, transgender people across the state were already using these facilities consistent with their gender identity; however, some lawmakers were caught off guard and cried government overreach.
At a packed hearing on a repeal bill, Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, chaired the committee, falsely assuring those in attendance that anyone who interpreted the policy as "some kind of judgment or castigation of the transgender community" would be wrong. Baumgartner argued against the rule on the basis that unquestioned access to facilities is a way to carry out sexual assaults. He then made the threat of a statewide initiative in his closing remarks before moving the bill out of committee, one step closer to a vote.
The suggestion that sexual deviants are waiting to sneak up on unsuspecting women and children in bathrooms and lockers is fearmongering cloaked in transphobia. The Spokane Valley City Council — made up of seven old white men, who mostly live in the same part of the city of 90,000 — quickly endorsed the proposal. "Different things happen in a women's restroom compared to men's. They just do," Councilman Arne Woodard says, playing the public safety card.
These concerns are completely unfounded. There are no documented cases of rapists taking advantage of antidiscrimination rules. Not one. On the contrary, the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs requested that lawmakers uphold the antidiscrimination law, noting that there's been a zero increase in assaults related to transgender people using facilities since the law went into effect.
Why are legislators looking for a problem that doesn't exist? They're scared; their fear is rooted in ignorance. They seek votes at the expense of some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Their beliefs are based in a misunderstanding of the dynamics of sexual assaults, which are mostly committed by someone known to the survivor; in the cases of children who have experienced sexual violence, three out of four knew the perpetrator. (Nor would the antidiscrimination language shield someone from prosecution over illicit activity.)
Opponents reinforce a narrow definition of gender and sexuality, instead of focusing on the real problem: Working to stop men from committing rape and addressing rape culture. In some places in Washington, transphobia has become politically acceptable. Rep. Graham Hunt, a conservative Republican from Orting in Pierce County, wants to go further, dropping a bill with 36 co-sponsors that bans transgendered individuals from bathrooms if such individuals are "preoperative, nonoperative, or otherwise [have] genitalia of a different gender from that for which the facility is segregated."
"I've tried to make this about the genitalia," Hunt says. "If you don't have the parts ... if you don't have the plumbing, then you don't go in."
Hunt's oversimplification is ignorant and offensive. Meanwhile, the stigma is deadly — more than 40 percent of transgender Americans attempt suicide. 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.
Baumgartner is right about one thing. This is about safety — a basic human need we all share. In this case, safety means acceptance and understanding, not punishing innocents over imaginary evils. The bigots are on the wrong side of history. In time, they will lose, but the fight is far from over.♦
Paul Dillon, a Center for Justice board member, manages public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho.
CLARIFICATION: The Spokane Valley City Council, as a body, passed a resolution in support of repealing a state rule allowing transgender individuals to use the restrooms of the gender they identify with. However, not all seven council members supported it; Dean Grafos and Chuck Hafner voted against it. Read more about the issue here.