Hundreds of people signed up to testify in front of the commerce and labor committee this week on a Republican state senate bill that would overturn a state human rights commission rule that—affirming the state's long-standing LGBTQ equal rights law—says trans people can use the bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. The bill, sponsored by Republican state senator Doug Ericksen (R-42, Ferndale) and which says the commission must repeal the rule, passed out of committee later that afternoon along partisan lines with four Republicans, including commerce and labor committee chair state senator Michael Baumgartner (R-6, Spokane) voting in favor, and three Democrats, including Southeast Seattle state senator Bob Hasegawa (D-11, Beacon Hill), voting against. Danni Askini, executive director of the trans rights group the Gender Justice League organized opposition to the bill. —Editors
Sitting in Wednesday's hearing for SB 6443, a bill that would repeal rules protecting transgender Washingtonians from discrimination, I was shocked but not surprised by what I was hearing.
While this issue is just now coming into focus for many people in the public, the transgender community has been facing similar bills and attempts to halt nondiscrimination protections for the better part of the last decade. The tropes are for us tired and old; simply stating that providing antidiscrimination protections to transgender people will result in cisgender men entering women’s restrooms to assault women and girls. It is a fear that has been rolled out all over the country, largely with great success. The media has uncritically parroted these fears, giving them the same amount of coverage as actual facts about who transgender people are—and the extensive discrimination and violence we face.
What I heard at the hearing was a lot of concern that the mere existence of transgender women in women’s restrooms would some how “muddy the waters,” making it impossible to perceive potential predators; or “open the door” (or in their words “put out a welcome mat”) to people wanting to harm or assault women.
This argument falls flat when faced with the facts that the vast majority of sexual assaults and violence against women are perpetrated by people the victim knows. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, national crime victimization study, between 2009 and 2013, 82 percent of sexual assaults were perpetrated by a nonstranger. It does a serious disservice to all victims of gender based violence by misdirecting attention to supposed “stranger danger” posed by transgender people’s presence. Forcing transgender women to use men’s rooms will do nothing to protect cisgender women, it will simply place us in the impossible situation of breaking the law or facing possible assault, violence, or harassment in the men’s room. Sitting silent in the audience, it pained me to hear other people talk about their own experiences of sexual violence—violence that was not caused by transgender people.
Wednesday's testimony posited a false dilemma: protect victims of sexual assault or provide nondiscrimination protections to transgender people. The reality is that according to the Department of Justice, 51 percent of all transgender people have been victims of sexual assault. A staggering number and a horrifying fact I know all too well as a survivor of sexual assault. The person who raped me was not a random stranger in a bathroom, it was not a peeping tom in a locker room, it was not a leering man who grabbed me in a dark alley; like the 82 percent of victims of sexual assault, I was assaulted by someone I knew, a friend of a friend who had access to my home, had charmed all of the people around him with his “nice guy” attitude, and found someone he knew was vulnerable and others wouldn’t believe.
Gender-based violence, including sexual assault is a horrifying problem worldwide. However stripping transgender people of the most basic civil rights protections we need to function every day in society—protections in accessing bathrooms at work, or in a mall, or at a hospital—does nothing to provide safety to nontransgender women. It simply exposes us to more attack.
I have immense amount of sympathy for the other women who fear for their safety in public places and fear men; I live with that same fear every day. However, here is what I know is true: I am not a man, nor are other transgender women. Trans women are women. Period. We face similarly horrifying gender-based violence as all other women do, which is why we need access to spaces with other women for the same safety they are seeking for themselves. Last year alone, 25 transgender women—24 of whom were women of color—were murdered in this country, almost all of them by men, a majority of the men were intimate partners or men they knew. Gender-based violence is a horrifying reality for all women, but especially trans women.
Legislators who are trying to score political points by stoking fears as justification to remove the civil rights of a little understood and easily disenfranchised part of the population is the worst part of our history. What proponents of these bills cannot face or find a solution to is how to protect transgender women if we are forced out of women’s restrooms. The fact is that 53 percent of us have experienced violence, harassment, or assault in places of public accommodation. The idea of how to protect us never entered the conversation; reporters have continued to fail to challenge these legislators’ claims by asking them, “How do you plan to protect transgender people from violence and discrimination better than the Human Rights Commission—our state’s civil rights experts?”
More often than not in online arguments they have dismissively said, “Why should we care about 1 percent of the population and be inconvenienced by your presence and our discomfort with how you look. Our comfort is more important than your safety?” This response is little comfort to the hundreds of parents in Washington state with transgender sons and daughters who would be forced into bathrooms with people of the gender opposite their children live as and know themselves to be.
These bills which target transgender people’s civil rights are simply about the discomfort people have with the very idea of transgender people existing. The proponents should simply say it out loud so that we as a culture can have a conversation and confront that discomfort head on, with the reality of who transgender people are. We are your neighbors, your children, your parents, your siblings, cousins, coworkers, teachers, parishioners, and hopefully one day soon, your state legislators.
Danni Askini is the executive director of the Gender Justice League.