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Transgender bathroom access fight kicks off in Washington

The groups facing off on the proposed ballot measure are Just Want Privacy and Washington Won't Discriminate.
KUOW Photo/Amy Radil
The groups facing off on the proposed ballot measure are Just Want Privacy and Washington Won't Discriminate.

A group in Washington state wants to force transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their biological sex.

They’re now collecting signatures to put Initiative 1515 on the ballot.

The initiative would also protect businesses from lawsuits if they maintain sex-specific changing areas. And it would impose more stringent standards on public schools, requiring them to keep transgender girls, for example, out of locker rooms when other girls are changing. Failure to do so could be grounds for a lawsuit.

Joseph Backholm chairs the campaign, Just Want Privacy, in support of the ballot measure. Backholm, who is also the executive director of the Family Policy Institute, said the state’s rules implemented last yeararound open access go too far.

“It gives me a legal right to be present in the women’s locker room in the gym and it gives me a legal right to sue the gym owner if he tries to stop me,” he said.

“Everyone would agree that it would be inappropriate for me to be there, so I should not have a legal right to be there just by speaking the words, ‘I’m identifying or I’m expressing as a woman today.’”

Backholm expects broad voter support for his initiative if it gets on the November ballot.

“This is not a blue-red issue,” he said. “Especially on the school issue, at least 75 percent of the state is uncomfortable with the idea that boys can go into the girls’ locker room at the school by declaring themselves to be female.”

The open access rules were implemented last year under the state’s 2006 anti-discrimination law. A campaign to defend that law held an inaugural event Thursday at the First United Methodist Church in Renton.

Religious leaders, politicians and transgender people and their supporters said at the event that repealing the rules would lead to more discrimination against vulnerable transgender adults and students, as well as potential boycotts.

Seth Kirby chairs the campaign Washington Won’t Discriminate, which opposes the initiative. Responding to hypotheticals about men entering women’s locker rooms, Kirby said, “We would really ask that men not do that. The reality is that transgender women are women, transgender men like myself are men, and we need to use the restrooms and the facilities that we identify with, just like everyone else is able to do.”

And former Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick, who is running for a seat in the Washington Legislature, said there are laws in place to keep anyone from abusing the “open access” rules.  

“It’s important to remember that indecent exposure, voyeurism, and sexual assault are already illegal, and that police officers use existing laws to keep us safe and hold offenders accountable,” he said.

North Carolina passed a law requiring people to use the bathroom corresponding to their biological sex, which has been the target of protests and travel boycotts. State Senator Jamie Pedersen said if I-1515 passed, Washington would likely see similar consequences.

That said, reaching the ballot may be a long shot for its backers. “Just Want Privacy” is using volunteers rather than paid signature gatherers. They must submit 246,000 valid signatures to the state by July 8.

Year started with KUOW: 2005