A new state regulation guaranteeing transgender people access to restrooms and locker rooms according to their identity prompts an uproar. It is seen as either a civil rights landmark or political correctness run amok.
Recovering from a blood marrow disease, and needing to work out to regain her strength, Danni Askini started going regularly to a gym several years ago. For her, it was a no-brainer to use the women’s locker room. Askini, a 33-year-old transgender woman, has been using women’s facilities for years.
“For the first time since high school, I did not pass very well,” recalled Askini, a social worker who serves as executive director of the Gender Justice League, a transgender advocacy group. She lost her hair during two years of chemotherapy and what had grown back followed a male hairline.
Although she kept a towel on to go to and from the private shower stall, she heard snickers, whispers and, occasionally, direct questions about what she was doing in the women’s locker room. As soon as she could, she stopped going to the gym altogether.
Now, she’s thinking about going back. “I feel safer,” she said, knowing that should questions arise, “I can point to something.”
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On Dec. 26, a state regulation went into effect that guarantees access to restrooms, locker rooms, and other such facilities according to a person’s gender identity. It affects public and private buildings, including schools, restaurants, stores and most places of employment.
Seattle recently affirmed a similar rule and required single-stall restrooms to be open to all genders.
Restroom access for transgender people, estimated to be less than one percent of the population, has become a heated issue around the country — seen by some as a civil-rights battle akin to gay marriage and by others as political correctness run amok. The issue may have even more resonance in Washington, where at least by Askini’s account the transgender population is possibly the third largest in the country.
The state Human Rights Commission says its new regulation is not introducing a new right, but clarifying a 2006 state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Hit by funding cuts, the commission just got around to rule-making.
It won’t change much, say a few institutions, including the Seattle Public Library, which already has an inclusionary policy.
Yet among some legislators and members of the public, it has generated an uproar. Sharon Ortiz, Human Rights Commission executive director, said state officials are “getting bombarded with calls.”
Rep. Graham Hunt, R-Orting, and Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, have pledged to work on bills ensuring that, in Ericksen’s words, “The boys will use the boys’ locker room and the girls will use the girls’ locker room.”
There is no agreement, though, on who are the boys and who are the girls. It’s a debate that has people discussing body parts and the details of transitioning from one gender to another. It also pits one person’s sense of safety against another’s.
“I’m a survivor of sexual abuse,” said Kaeley Triller Haver, who recently opposed a policy at the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties that mirrors the state’s. “If I turned around and I’m naked and I saw the male anatomy, that would be traumatic.”
Yet Askini and other supporters of the regulation say that repealing it would put transgender people, already subject to a high rate of violence, in situations that make them stand out even more.
Fears as rallying calls
The debate erupted even before the Human Rights Commission wrote its rule. In April, an inquiry from a transgender member led the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties to allow access to locker rooms according to gender identity, according to Bob Ecklund, the organization’s president and chief executive officer.
Triller Haver was then the organization’s communications director. Both her parents had also held senior positions at the Y. “That was home,” she said.
But as she read over the talking points she was expected to espouse, she found herself at odds with her employer. The abuse she says she suffered as a child, from a relative, made her especially nervous about who had access to open areas where women and girls, including her 5-year-old daughter, are naked.
“Part of what my abuser liked to do was to watch me in the shower,” she said. Just using the Y’s shower at all, she said, is “an act of healing.”
She worried not only about seeing a transgender woman who hadn’t surgically transitioned, but also about being watched by a predator exploiting the Y’s policy. She cited press reports of a man in Toronto, which has a similar law to Washington’s, posing as transgender to gain access to women’s homeless shelters, where he attacked two women.
She claims that when she raised questions about the policy, she was fired. (Ecklund said he could not comment on employee matters.)
Such fears have also been rallying calls for those opposed to the state regulation. “The reality is there are sex predators,” said Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington. “This is just a big welcome mat.”
That’s especially true, he argued, since transgender advocates discourage asking people questions about why they are in a particular restroom or locker room. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, you’re 6-feet-5-inches, 270 pounds and you have a beard, therefore you’re a man,’ ” Backholm said.
Gunner Scott has a beard. Yet, the 45-year-old — the director of programs for the Pride Foundation and a transgender man — contends that most women would not want him in women’s facilities. He stopped using them around 14 years ago when he realized his presence was making other people uncomfortable.
The reality is that most transgender people already use the restrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with, he said. “If we didn’t do that, we’d have more complaints.”
Or worse, it could result in assaults, said Askini, the Gender Justice League executive director. “I have breasts. That’s a thing,” she said, noting she is a petite 5-feet-5-inches and looks for the most part like a woman. If she were to use the men’s bathroom, she said, “I have no doubt I would be targeted.”
She pointed to a U.S. Department of Justice report showing that half of all transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. In 2015, murder claimed 22 people who were transgender or didn’t look like stereotypical men or women, reported the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
Askini said she herself has been punched in the face in San Francisco and chased for blocks on Seattle’s Capitol Hill by two twentysomethings throwing beer cans at her and screaming a slur against gays.
But as much as she believes that she would be safer in women’s facilities, she is not eager to walk around naked. “Generally, transgender people avoid having to expose themselves publicly,” she said.
“At the end of the day, we’re not comfortable in our own bodies and the last thing we want to do is show them to other people,” echoed Scott, who uses a gym near his home so that he doesn’t have to use a public changing room.
That doesn’t mean an awkward encounter couldn’t happen. In 2012, a naked transgender woman used a clothing-optional sauna at The Evergreen State College as a group of high-school girls were in the college recreation center for swim practice. Located in a corner of the women’s locker room, the sauna is for adults only, but the girls may have seen the woman through tinted glass, according to Evergreen spokesperson Meryl Lipman.
The incident, which became infamous in conservative media, prompted the college to curtain off an area with showers and changing space for the exclusive use of high-schoolers during their practice times. The students are not supposed to venture beyond it to the sauna, which remains clothing optional.
At the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties, the controversy came to a head in September, when a thousand calls and emails led the organization to scale back its original decision — only to readopt it in December after yet more discussion and consultation with the state attorney general’s office.
“We’re following state law,” said CEO Ecklund. Acknowledging concerns, the organization said it would check membership and possibly state IDs, both of which state a person’s gender, should it be alerted to suspicious activity. Nevertheless, 300 households have canceled their memberships.
In contrast, the issue has not generated controversy at the YMCA of Greater Seattle despite its intention to follow the state regulation, according to president and CEO Bob Gilbertson. Regardless of the transgender debate, privacy has become a bigger issue for everyone, he added. His organization plans to keep that in mind as it designs new branches in the University District and elsewhere.
“We’re going to figure this out,” he said.
Likewise, Seattle Public Schools may have to revise its policy — but probably not much — once it studies the regulation, according to district spokesperson Stacy Howard. Following the guidance of the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the district adopted a policy in February that allows restroom access according to gender identity and the same for locker-room access “in most cases,” although decisions can be made on a case-by-case basis.
All that could be upended if Hunt and other upset legislators get their way. Hunt said he’s considering a bill that would relegate “preoperative or nonoperative” transgender people to facilities that conform to their anatomy.
“How are you going to enforce it?” asked Scott. Will there be “panty checks”?
A bill of that kind might prompt a court challenge that brings federal law into play. U.S. agencies, including the Department of Education, have interpreted anti-discrimination laws as protecting access according to gender identity, according to David Ward, an attorney with the women’s rights organization Legal Voice.
A court case wouldn’t surprise the Human Rights Commission’s Ortiz. “I expected the rules to be challenged,” she said.
But it would likely heighten the emotional stakes — and embarrassing conversations — even more. Said Askini: “Just the fact that this is a public conversation is mortifying.”