Why A Seattle-Area Mosque Barred Anti-Trans Activists

Just Want Privacy thought that mosques would be the perfect places to drum up support for an anti-trans initiative in Washington state. But they were shown the door.

Photo Illustration by the Daily Beast

In 2016, the Just Want Privacy campaign fell about 65,000 signatures short of getting an initiative on the Washington state ballot calling for the effective repeal of protections for transgender people.

But they’re back at it again this year—and this time they’re targeting mosques to get more signatures, as the Spokesman-Review first reported.

“The mosques in Washington state will be some of the best places to gather signatures,” Joseph Backholm, the founder of Just Want Privacy, told the local paper.

There’s one major problem with that plan, however: Mahmood Khadeer, president of the Redmond-based Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), the largest mosque in Washington state with over 5,000 families, told The Daily Beast that they’re not interested in Just Want Privacy’s signature-gathering efforts.

“If somebody comes for collecting those signatures, we are not going to subscribe to that because we are against any discrimination of that type,” he told The Daily Beast.

In fact, MAPS has already denied Just Want Privacy permission to gather signatures for their anti-transgender ballot initiative once before. Khadeer told The Daily Beast that the Just Want Privacy campaign came to the Redmond mosque last spring during a “hectic time” and acquired a handful of signatures in the resulting confusion.

“Last year during Ramadan, they showed up at our center and we had no idea who those people were,” Khadeer told The Daily Beast.

With little information about the campaign and out of a desire to not be “disrespectful to [their] guests,” Khadeer says that Just Want Privacy was given a spot “in the corner” to collect signatures but “a lot of community members were unhappy with them.” (“A few of them signed, maybe without reading,” Khadeer recalled.)

Afterward, the MAPS board learned more about Just Want Privacy’s political goals. So when the signature gatherers asked to come back for Eid al-Fitr, the feast at the end of Ramadan, MAPS refused.

“They wanted to come again on our big Eid celebration and we said no to them,” Khadeer told The Daily Beast, later reemphasizing, “We did not allow it.”

If Just Want Privacy’s I-1552 ballot initiative (PDF) gains 260,000 signatures by July, Washingtonians could vote to amend the state’s non-discrimination legislation to define “sex,” “gender,” and all other gendered terms based on “the person’s sex or gender as determined or that existed biologically or genetically at the time of a person’s birth.” The state currently interprets that legislation as prohibiting anti-transgender discrimination in gender-segregated facilities like restrooms, locker rooms, and homeless shelters.

I-1552 would also “override” some portions of local non-discrimination legislation dealing with gender identity, according to its ballot title (PDF).

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And as the text of the initiative itself notes, I-1552 would also require public schools to make an “alternative accommodation if one is available” for any transgender student who wishes to use facilities that align with their gender (PDF). Otherwise, restroom use in public schools would be segregated by sex assigned at birth. (The Trump administration has already withdrawn federal Title IX guidance instructing schools to allow transgender students to use gender-appropriate restrooms.)

Last year, as MyNorthwest reported, Just Want Privacy was only able to get 181,278 signatures shortly before the deadline for last year’s ballot initiative, I-1515. This year, they’ll need almost 80,000 more signatures than they got the last time around.

Over email, Joseph Backholm, founder of the Just Want Privacy campaign and president of the socially conservative Family Policy Institute of Washington, told The Daily Beast that “nothing in that [Spokesman-Review] article was accurate” and that the “writer of that editorial was desperately trying to portray the effort as anti-Islamic.” (The Spokesman-Review had reported that Just Want Privacy was planning to hold a closed-door training for signature gatherers at a Christian church in Spokane that was also scheduled to host a controversial ex-Muslim pastor named Shahram Hadian who has called Islam a “culture of death.”)

But asked if he did indeed say that “mosques in Washington state will be some of the best places to gather signatures” for I-1552, Backholm said, “Yes. That’s accurate.

“In my experience, the Muslim community has a clear sense of the difference between men and women and believe those differences are innate not felt,” he explained. “But I should [not] be speaking for them.”

The day after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Washington state in a lawsuit against President Trump’s travel ban on seven majority-Muslim countries—Backholm tweeted: “Obama bombed much of the middle east via executive order. Can Trump just blow up the airports in the 7 countries to implement the ban?”

In a document obtained by The Daily Beast entitled “Lessons Learned from Signature Gathering” and dated November 2016, the Just Want Privacy campaign appears to outline a potential strategy for gathering signatures from mosques and synagogues this year in the wake of their failure to get enough signatures last year.

“Think bigger…diversify,” a bullet point under the “Potential Actions” section of the document reads. “[T]hink about collecting signatures at women’s clubs, fitness clubs, Muslim Mosques, Jewish Synagogues.”

Another section of the “Lessons Learned” document aligns closely with Khadeer’s description of the group’s ill-fated visit to the Redmond mosque last year: Two people identified only as “KM” and “DO” recall that “the Redmond mosque did not work very well,” that they got “a few forms filled out,” and that “many could hardly communicate with us and could not fill out the form adequately.”

The section on the Redmond mosque visit continues: “We had one very difficult exchange one night two [sic] with a large loud woman who said, ‘Get out of here. We don’t want you Christians here. You always want us to do things for you. You don’t care about us.’”

Backholm denied the opportunity to comment on the “Lessons Learned” document and did not respond to a further request to confirm its authenticity.

“As riveting as that piece of journalism is sure to be, you are correct,” Backholm said when The Daily Beast asked if he was certain that he didn’t want to answer questions about the “Lessons Learned” document, which, incidentally, contains a suggestion to develop a “communications plan that does not depend at all on the media (newspaper or TV).”

Just Want Privacy did not return phone messages left by The Daily Beast on Tuesday asking for comment about both the plan to gather signatures from mosques and the “Lessons Learned” document.

Metadata in the document’s properties indicates that “Lessons Learned from Signature Gathering” was created last year by a consultant affiliated with Just Want Privacy.

Publicly, the Just Want Privacy campaign told a critic on their Facebook page that the “initiative has nothing to do with transgender people.” Neither does the I-1552 ballot initiative use the word “transgender,” referring instead to transgender students as those “who consistently assert to school officials that their gender identity is different from their birth sex or gender.”

The “Lessons Learned” document, however, contains several direct references to transgender people. Under a bullet point labeled “Build supporting resources,” two individuals identified as “CW” and “AM” suggest making videos of “mean and nasty adult trans m-to-females” to persuade the public. Someone identified as “CP” recalls that they “avoided discussing [their] opinion of transgender people” when gathering signatures. At another point, the phrase “males including transwomen” appears.

“I’ve noticed that when trans people are shown it’s often adorable little boys who could easily pass for girls,” two individuals write in an appendix of the document on the group’s communications strategy. “So different from the MEN they grow up into. I think showing these men, really showing them up close, a good hard look, hearing them talk as they insist they are women too & you must accept that, cursing us if we don’t agree, taking a good hard look, would help our cause.”

Backholm’s initial comments to The Daily Beast about his experience of the Muslim community having “a clear sense of the difference between men and women” seems to suggest that he believes Washington mosques could be sympathetic to the ballot initiative.

But Khadeer says that Just Want Privacy shouldn’t let any preconceptions about Islamic theology guide the campaign into believing that members of mosques like MAPS will be any more likely to sign I-1552. As the Seattle Times reported, MAPS condemned last year’s Pulse nightclub shooting and called on the Muslim community to give blood.

“Theologically, you know, we have an opinion on LGBTQ etc.—that Islam does not approve of that lifestyle,” he told The Daily Beast. “But as far as discrimination is concerned, anybody marginalizing them, anybody discriminating them, anybody mistreating them—we stand with them to protect their rights.

“We welcome them and we treat them like any other Muslim or human being,” he continued. “If their rights are being tampered upon, if people are mistreating them, if they are going to get discriminated [against], then we’re gonna stand with them.”