Washington State is one of the bluest in the country.
It could also be where the country’s next major anti-transgender initiative takes hold.
While all eyes are on Texas as legislators there prepare for a special session on July 18 to potentially pass what could be the country’s second “bathroom bill,” another deadline is sneaking up in Washington: July 7.
That’s when LGBT advocates will know whether or not the anti-transgender campaign Just Want Privacy has gathered enough signatures for their initiative, I-1552, to make it on the Washington State ballot this fall.
According to the Just Want Privacy website, the campaign is nearly halfway there, with 141,500 signatures gathered out of their 330,000 goal. (Technically, the campaign only needs 260,000 signatures but overshooting that mark would ensure success.)
With no way to verify how close Just Want Privacy is coming to their goal—signature count reporting is not required by law—Seth Kirby, chair of Washington Won’t Discriminate and a transgender man himself, has no choice but to take his opposition’s numbers at face value.
“They are showing a pretty significant increase in signatures that they have on their website,” Kirby told The Daily Beast. “And this is such a threat that we have to plan as is this will be on the ballot.”
This is the second year that Just Want Privacy—which did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment—has attempted to place an anti-transgender initiative on the Washington State ballot. Last year, they fell about 65,000 signatures short of their target.
This year, as The Daily Beast has previously reported, their initiative I-1552 would allow Washingtonians to vote this fall to amend the state’s non-discrimination legislation to define terms like “sex” and “gender” based on “the person’s sex or gender as determined or that existed biologically or genetically at the time of a person’s birth,” effectively removing protections for transgender people in facilities like restrooms, locker rooms, and homeless shelters.
I-1552 would also override certain portions of local-level non-discrimination legislation that protect transgender people.
The initiative would also segregate multi-stall public school restrooms by birth-assigned sex, requiring transgender students to use “alternative accommodations if one is available,” with multi-stall school restrooms segregated by birth-assigned sex.
It is a sweeping initiative comparable to the “bathroom bill” passed in North Carolina last year and the school-focused anti-transgender legislation that could become law in Texas this summer. And with President Trump in the White House, transgender rights battles at the state-level have taken on added significance.
In February, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice rescinded previous guidance from the Obama administration instructing school districts to protect transgender students’ restroom rights.
That leaves the door wide open for state-level challenges to transgender rights—especially because the Department of Education’s new guidance leaves it unclear whether or not transgender bathroom access is protected.
“States are really the last line of defense on non-discrimination protections,” said Kirby. “So if we lose something here in Washington, it’s very, very serious—and I think our opposition knows that, too, and that’s why we’ve been targeted. They know that if they can win here, they can win everywhere. That’s why we’re taking it so seriously.”
One might think that voters in a state which broke 54-38 for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election would overwhelmingly refuse to pass an initiative like I-1552. Indeed, recent polling from the Public Religion Research Institute indicates that most voters, including a substantial 65 percent of Democrats, oppose “bathroom bills.”
But between the 30 percent of Democrats, 39 percent of independents, and 59 percent of Republicans who support them, anti-transgender initiatives are by no means doomed to fail.
Tech giants like Adobe, AirBnB, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are all opposing I-1552—and dozens of local and national organizations focused on domestic and sexual violence have already announced opposition to anti-transgender initiatives in an April 2016 letter, noting that they “perpetuate the myth that protecting transgender people’s access to restrooms and locker rooms endangers the safety or privacy of others.”
But despite how much support Washington Won’t Discriminate has on paper, Kirby says the bathroom issue can hit people at a gut level.
“Our opposition knows it’s very easy to instill fear in people—it takes about five seconds,” he told The Daily Beast. “To educate people takes about five minutes.”
In the absence of empirical data showing that transgender protections endanger privacy, Just Want Privacy has relied on anecdotes instead—primarily scattered local news reports about peeping Toms who would already be prosecutable under Washington State’s existing voyeurism legislation.
Earlier this year, that anecdotal approach backfired. In March, when marathon runner Kelly Herron reported being sexually assaulted by a man in a public restroom in a Seattle park, Just Want Privacy used her story and image on their Facebook page—without Herron’s permission—to argue in favor of I-1552.
When Herron found out, she was irate, announcing in a press release, “I refuse to allow anyone to use me and my horrific sexual assault to cause harm and discrimination to others.” Just Want Privacy ultimately removed the photos.
At the time, Herron told The Daily Beast, “My transgender friends, just like me, want to use the bathroom and get out safely. It’s that simple.”
But Just Want Privacy has continued undeterred. Earlier this month, the group reported receiving a $50,000 donation which, as the Seattle Times reported, gave campaign chair Joseph Backholm confidence that they will be able to pay for 150 thousand more signatures to be gathered.
This is the second time that Backholm has spearheaded Just Want Privacy’s efforts to get an anti-transgender initiative on the ballot.
The first time around, Seattle’s KIRO7 reported that Backholm made “jokes” to male signature gatherers about entering women’s facilities to get support for their ballot initiative.
“For the gentlemen, what I would encourage you to do, if you are so bold and to make the point, take your petition and stand outside the women's restroom at the mall,” Backholm said in a recording obtained by the local news station. “If any of the women don't want to sign it, just go ahead and follow them in. Maybe this will be a better time to sign our little petition, and we can make the point that way."
Kirby hopes that if Backholm and Just Want Privacy fail for the second time in a row, they will finally give it a rest.
“After two times of not getting on the ballot,” he said, “it doesn’t seem like it would be an investment that would be worthy of maintaining.”
But Kirby said that he has “plan[ned] from the beginning as if this will be on the ballot so that we’re as ready as possible.” Being transgender himself, he’s all too aware that his rights could be unexpectedly rescinded.
“I certainly can’t speak for all transgender people but I just think that it’s something we can’t take for granted,” he said.