A group of self-described California “privacy advocates” is making a final push to gather enough signatures to place an initiative on 2016 ballots that would ban transgender people from using public bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.
But opponents say the measure actually would introduce alarming invasions of privacy, as a minimum $4,000 civil award for catching a violator incentivizes people to visually inspect the anatomy of others changing or using a restroom.
The two camps, both using the language of privacy and personal rights, are preparing for an election-year fight, given a historically low initiative signature requirement due to poor voter turnout in 2014.
Proponents are turning to churches for a hoped-for signature windfall this weekend, and they’re optimistic about scoring a spot on ballots. “They’re coming in large crates right now by mail,” says Tim LeFever, a member of the executive committee of Privacy for All, which is sponsoring the proposal.
LeFever says activists are not paying petition-circulators but should be able to clear the 365,880 valid-signature requirement. They’re asking supporters to postmark forms by Monday ahead of a hard Dec. 21 filing deadline.
Perhaps surprisingly, LeFever says he hasn’t heard concern from initiative supporters that opposite-sex people would enter gender-segregated facilities to ogle them. Instead, he says a more abstract sense of decency drives most people’s qualms about transgender people picking which facility to use.
“I’ve heard very few people talk about ogling, it’s just a certain sense of modesty and privacy,” he says. “There’s just a sense when you go into a bathroom, into a stall where you’re disrobing to use a toilet, there’s a sense you should have people of the same gender around you.”
The struggle began after passage in 2013 of AB 1266, which allows students to choose which gendered facility to use.
LeFever’s group, then called Privacy for All Students, submitted what it claims were enough signatures to present the matter to voters in 2014 for a citizen veto. State elections officials found the group had only submitted 487,484 valid signatures, about 17,000 under the requirement – a matter that still is being litigated, perhaps resulting in two similar measures on 2016 ballots.
Betty Ellis, a female soccer linesman, takes a break in a men’s locker room in 1981 in Santa Rosa, California.
Opponents already are preparing to fight back. A coalition of groups including the Transgender Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union have formed a steering committee to take on the challenge, says Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur.
“Opposing this measure will be our highest electoral priority if it gets on the ballot,” Zbur says.
Zbur says he hopes the initiative won’t qualify for the ballot, but he’s concerned that conservative churches may vault the measure over the signature threshold.
Though he sees the measure as unnecessary and discriminatory against a small and historically mistreated minority group, Zbur says it would have alarming effects for many others.
“It really is a huge invasion of privacy for the entire public,” he says. “What this would result in, essentially, is bathroom police. There’s a $4,000 bounty on catching someone, so it gives incentives to people to self-monitor bathrooms and accost people who are coming out and allows individuals to make subjective determinations about whether someone looks adequately masculine or feminine.”
Under the measure, someone whose “privacy was actually violated” or someone who “declined to use a facility because of a violation” could sue both the government entity and the alleged offender. They would be entitled to attorney fees and a minimum of $4,000. Private business would be allowed to set their own policies.
It’s unclear if the measure would pass. Legislation containing a similar proposal in Kentucky – with a $2,500 bounty on catching students in the “wrong” gendered facility – failed earlier this year after widespread and largely unfavorable coverage.
LeFever insists proponents of the measure are not motivated by bigotry. “We have compassion for anyone who feels biology has betrayed them,” he says. “We’re not trying to push some moral position here. We’re trying to push for privacy.”