Transgender Rights Become Focus of Debate in Washington State Legislature

Transgender Rights Become Focus of Debate in Washington State Legislature

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Some organizations already include gender-neutral bathrooms, like this one in a building at the University of Washington.
Some organizations already include gender-neutral bathrooms, like this one in a building at the University of Washington.

By Jeanie Lindsay

Washington state representatives heard testimony from concerned citizens Monday, regarding one bill among a set of proposed legislation that would ultimately limit bathroom and public locker room access for transgender people.

Advocates from both sides of the debate, including Family Policy Institute of Washington and Washington SAFE Alliance, attended Monday’s Senate Law and Justice Committee hearing on Senate Bill (SB) 6548, to express why it should or shouldn’t pass. Rep. Judith Warnick, (R – Moses Lake) one sponsor of the bill, also spoke at the hearing, and cited a popular example used by supporters of the bill that illuminates the concern for bathroom and locker room safety in public.

“I’m not trying to discriminate,” she said. “I am thinking about children and very vulnerable adults.”

SB 6548 amends a current anti-discrimination law and would not guarantee rights for any transgender person to access shared gendered facilities they do not biologically match, and that businesses are not liable if they do not provide that access. The committee voted to pass the bill Wednesday night, and it will now proceed to the Rules Committee before going in front of the full Senate.

A related piece of legislation passed out of committee recently as well. SB 6443, reverses a rule set by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) in December that requires businesses to allow transgender individuals access to gendered facilities that match their personal gender identity. According to the HRC, the rule simply clarifies a 2006 anti-discrimination law, but supporters of the bill say the rule changes the law and puts people at risk of harassment in community locker rooms and bathrooms.

Along with Senate Bill 6548, similar bills in the House (HB 2589, 2782, 2935) seek to clarify the 2006 law as well. In each of the bills, an additional paragraph amends the law already in place, and clarifies that nothing guarantees transgender people access to private gendered facilities they do not biologically match, nor are public entities required to provide access to them.

In addition to amending the current law, SB 6443 revokes the HRC’s ability to make future rules regarding the issue.

As debate swirls around these so-called “bathroom bills,” the City of Seattle has begun to address the issue of bathroom access. The City Council in August approved an ordinance that restricts single-occupancy restrooms from being gender specific. Mayor Ed Murray also supported the ordinance, calling it an “important step to provide respect and safety for members of the transgender community.”

In a speech at the Seattle City Hall, drag queen and LGBTQ rights activist Aleksa Manila emphasized the importance of such legislation by sharing personal experiences.

“When I was a little boy, I remember holding my bladder during regular classroom breaks just so I wasn’t in a room full of ‘other boys’ in the restroom,” Manila said. “It was a matter of safety.”

In Olympia, advocates for the transgender community expressed similar concerns. Transgender children and victims of sexual, verbal and physical harassment in public spaces became focal talking points for transgender-rights advocates, who emphasized that laws currently in place protect Washington’s trans community. According to testimony from Victoree Jamiel, a transgender man who has previously experienced harassment in Seattle public bathrooms, passing the current bills would be equivalent to “reinstating Jim Crow laws but towards transgender people.”

However, supporters of the bill say that the safety of transgender people is not at risk if these bills pass; rather the public remains free from the risk of sexual predators taking advantage of unclear and weak legislation.

In a blog post on the Family Policy Institute of Washington’s website, Executive Director Joseph Backholm cites instances of male sexual predators dressing as women to expose themselves and harass women in restrooms or private facilities such as women’s shelters and locker rooms. Although the most recent example is from 2014, and only one case is specific to Washington state, Backholm asserts that the ambiguity of the HRC’s rule remains a concern.

“It’s bad policy,” Backholm said. “I think it’s just a solution looking for a problem.”

Is Seattle’s ban on gender-specific single-occupancy bathrooms a middle ground for the statewide rule? According to Backholm, it isn’t. The real issue, he said, is that the legal liability for businesses who might not want to or be able to provide gendered facility access to transgender people is an unnecessary intrusion of the state.

Backholm said they are not opposed to businesses who want to allow access. “But the status quo is not broken.”

Those who testified in support of the bill on Monday expressed similar thoughts, and questioned how the Human Rights Commission had the power to make a rule that was implemented statewide. Bill supporter Gretchen Flores spoke out at Monday’s hearing, and referred to her own experience being abused in a swim team locker room to further express her concerns.

“I struggle to understand how an unelected body is able to inflict such widespread danger on society,” Flores said.

The remaining bills in the House, HB 2589, 2782, 2935, have yet to be heard in committee, and SB 6443 along with its companion bill have not yet been scheduled for a second hearing. For more information on this bill, visit the Washington legislature’s website.

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