Kelly Herron, Seattle Sex Assault Survivor, Slams Anti-Trans Group
‘I refuse to allow anyone to use me and my horrific sexual assault to cause harm and discrimination to others,’ says Kelly Herron of Just Want Privacy’s efforts to co-opt her story.
“Not today motherf**ker!”
That’s what Kelly Herron says she kept screaming while fighting off the man who allegedly assaulted her in a public restroom at a Seattle park during an afternoon run on Sunday, March 5.
Now the 36-year-old marathon runner has revived that phrase—her “battle cry,” as she calls it—to slam an anti-transgender group in Washington state called Just Want Privacy that started using her story to campaign for a rollback of restroom rights. “To the people behind I-1552, I say ‘not today, mutherf**kers,’” Herron said in a press release. “I refuse to allow anyone to use me and my horrific sexual assault to cause harm and discrimination to others.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Herron said she discovered her face on the Just Want Privacy Facebook page when “a friend sent [her] a link.”
At that point, Herron had already gone public with the story of her harrowing run, telling ABC News that she used her self-defense training to defeat the attacker by scratching his face, “hitting the side of his head,” and ultimately locking him inside with a carabiner until police arrived. Arizona sex offender Gary Steiner, was subsequently charged with attempted second-degree rape and second-degree assault with sexual motivation, with bail set at $750,000, according to The Seattle Times.
But Herron told The Daily Beast that she “had to speak out” again when she heard that Just Want Privacy had latched onto her assault.
“I just about lost my mind,” she said. “I was more upset than I’d been all week to learn that this political campaign was using my name, image, and story to raise funds and further their agenda towards a cause I do not support.”
As Seattle-based newspaper The Stranger reported, Just Want Privacy used Herron’s story in two ways: On March 9, the campaign sent an email to subscribers with a post-attack picture of her face, saying, “Each week yields new stories of deviant men who found ways to access female’s vulnerable spaces in order to exploit them.”
Then Just Want Privacy posted pictures of Herron’s wounds to Facebook with a caption urging support for I-1552, the proposed ballot initiative that would effectively overturn the state’s non-discrimination protections for transgender people, override certain sections of local non-discrimination ordinances, and require schools to regulate restroom use by birth-assigned gender.
The anti-transgender group—founded by Joseph Backholm, president of the socially conservative Family Policy Institute of Washington—failed to get enough signatures for a similar ballot initiative last year. (This year, Just Want Privacy reportedly considered turning to mosques for more support—although the largest mosque in the state confirmed to The Daily Beast earlier this month that they will not allow signatures to be gathered on their property.)
Herron wanted to be certain that her story didn’t help Just Want Privacy cross the required signature threshold this year.
And indeed, after local media outlets began republishing her initial press release, Just Want Privacy removed the photos of Herron, issuing a March 14 statement saying that they “would welcome the opportunity to apologize to her in person if she would like to reach out to us or provide a way for us to reach her.” (Just Want Privacy did not immediately return The Daily Beast’s request for further comment.)
But the group’s statement still claimed that Herron’s story “highlight[s] the need for common sense public policy to minimize danger to women and children from those who seek to harm others”—an idea that she vigorously refutes when it comes to I-1552.
“Protecting transgender people from discrimination has nothing to do with fighting sexual assault,” she told The Daily Beast.
Herron is far from alone in this belief. Sexual assault and domestic violence organizations have overwhelmingly opposed initiatives that seek to restrict restroom access for transgender people, as I-1552 would.
In an April 2016 letter, dozens of local and national organizations—including the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, and the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence—wrote that such initiatives “utilize and perpetuate the myth that protecting transgender people’s access to restrooms and locker rooms endangers the safety or privacy of others,” adding that “discriminating against transgender people does nothing to decrease the risk of sexual assault.”
These groups acknowledge that “safety fears” in public spaces “are not baseless or irrational” while also reminding anyone who has those fears that “assaulting another person in a restroom or changing room remains against the law in every single state.”
Herron knows something about fear—and survival in the face of it. She told ABC News that she was “drying [her] hands” when she saw her assailant in the bathroom, moments before he pulled her down onto the bathroom floor. But she wants other women to avoid misdirecting their fear of assault into support for initiatives and laws that would do nothing to mitigate that risk, while only making transgender people more vulnerable.
“One of the most important things I learned from the self-defense class is that if something feels unusual or unsafe, then trust your instinct and react immediately,” she told The Daily Beast, when asked what advice she has for women who might be afraid to use public restrooms after hearing her story. “But repealing non-discrimination protections for transgender people won’t make any of us safer and it may make things worse by encouraging more harassment.”
According to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, prepared by the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly one quarter of respondents said they had been “challenged” or “questioned” in a restroom in the past year—and one in eight said they had been “verbally harassed, physically attacked, or sexually assaulted” over the same time period. According to the sexual assault and domestic violence organizations who signed the April 2016 letter, that risk could increase if transgender people are required to use restrooms corresponding to the gender they were assigned at birth.
“Transgender people already experience unconscionably high rates of sexual assault—and forcing them out of facilities consistent with the gender they live every day makes them vulnerable to assault,” the letter noted.
And as a survivor of assault herself, the last thing Herron wants for the transgender people in her life is for them to go through what she did earlier this month.
“I have transgender friends, I have transgender co-workers,” she told The Daily Beast. “When I see them in the bathroom I ask them about their lip gloss. My transgender friends, just like me, want to use the bathroom and get out safely. It’s that simple.”