Within the span of a single year, major anti-transgender efforts have failed across the continental United States, and now in Anchorage, Alaska.
Ballot initiative Proposition 1—which would have defined “sex” based on “original birth certificate” and restricted restroom usage in municipal buildings accordingly—failed to win over Anchorage voters this week.
Those who voted in person on Tuesday said “no” to Prop 1 by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent, leading LGBT advocacy group Fair Anchorage to be “hopeful” for a win once all the mail-in ballots were counted. Throughout the week, as the remainder of the ballots were tallied, that margin shrunk slightly but then held stable.
Finally, on Friday night, the contest was called, with “no” leading “yes” by a five-point margin.
Fair Anchorage called it a “historic vote” in which voters “rejected fear and intimidation to affirm that transgender people… should be afforded the same dignity and respect as everyone else.”
National LGBT groups celebrated the win as well, with GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis noting in a press release that Prop 1 was “exposed as a clear attack on transgender people.” GLAAD believes that the anti-Prop 1 campaign has “provide[d] a blueprint to combat the growing trend of anti-transgender ballot measures popping up across the country.”
And Freedom for All Americans CEO Mason Davis added that the defeat of Prop 1 “indicates that the tide is turning in our movement for LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections.”
If that seems like a lot of significance to attach to one failed municipal-level initiative, it’s because Prop 1 also has national significance: It’s one of the first times the question of transgender restroom use has ever been put directly to a public vote. And the fact that the vote broke in favor of transgender people, however narrowly, is a positive sign of things to come.
The failure of Prop 1—which would have also rolled back sections of a 2015 Anchorage ordinance banning anti-LGBT discrimination—certainly doesn’t mark the end of anti-transgender campaigns in the United States. In fact, transgender rights will appear on the ballot in both Massachusetts and Montana later this year. But Prop 1’s demise this week is a sign that we could at least be nearing the beginning of the end.
Indeed, this initiative was about more than just attacking transgender Alaskans, it was also a referendum on the viability of such initiatives in 2018. And if the fate of Prop 1 is any indication, anti-transgender groups are going to get less and less mileage out of their usual scare tactics in the months and years to come.
Prop 1 was an egregious and blatant attack on transgender people that was even more strongly worded than North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill” and Texas’ failed 2017 equivalent. The “original birth certificate” language, in particular, would have meant that even transgender people who had undergone sex reassignment surgery would have been legally barred from using the correct restroom in municipal buildings.
But for all its cruelty, Prop 1 seemed to generate far less media attention, as ACLU attorney Chase Strangio observed on Twitter.
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LGBT advocates, on the other hand, were closely tracking the fate of Prop 1, because it marked the first time since the repeal of Houston’s 2015 equal rights ordinance, or HERO, that the public of a major city voted on a ballot initiative affecting transgender restroom rights.
Back in 2015, HERO—which added important LGBT protections to the city’s municipal code, among them restroom rights for transgender people—was rejected, and thereby repealed, by over 60 percent of voters after anti-transgender groups led a campaign falsely claiming that the ordinance allowed men to use women’s restrooms.
The anti-HERO efforts were, as then-mayor Annise Parker said at the time, primarily “fear-mongering and deliberate lies.” The situation wasn’t helped by local media, who as Media Matters noted, often “uncritically” repeated the myth that transgender protections would apply to “bathroom predators.”
But much has changed between 2015 and 2018, between the repeal of HERO and the defeat of Prop 1.
North Carolina also passed and then partially repealed HB 2 under enormous pressure, eliciting support for transgender rights from public figures like Bruce Springsteen in the process.
The Trump administration’s blatant attacks on transgender people—most notably, the attempt to ban transgender troops via Twitter—have made it harder to pass off transphobia as a noble concern for safety and privacy.
Most importantly, more Americans have gotten to know transgender people personally as friends, family members, and co-workers—and realized that the only thing transgender people want to do in the bathroom is go to the bathroom.
Increasingly, it seems, Americans are learning to call a transphobic spade a spade.
But anti-LGBT groups, of course, are still trying to pretend that initiatives like Prop 1 have nothing to do with transgender people.
As Into reported, citing nine sources, pro-Prop 1 petitioners largely omitted discussion of transgender people in their efforts, presenting it instead as a mere “privacy measure.” (“The word ‘transgender’ was never mentioned,” said one source who was approached by a canvasser at a local festival.)
At the same time, the tactics used by anti-transgender groups—as well as their fixation on transgender people—have never been more transparent.
Into further reported that an email sent out by the pro-Prop 1 Alaska Family Council in advance of the vote referred to the “authoritarian transgender movement that has metastasized like a cancer”—and that a woman whose testimonial was featured in a 30-second TV spot in support of Prop 1 currently lives in Minnesota, not Alaska, and previously lobbied for North Carolina’s “bathroom bill.” The Alaska Family Council president told Into that “local residents” were “afraid to tell their stories” by way of explaining the Minnesotan woman’s appearance in the ad.
The fact that anti-transgender groups feel the need to disguise their true motivations—and, in this case, import a Minnesotan for a TV spot airing in Alaska—suggests that there’s not some groundswell of grassroots support for initiatives like Prop 1.
The thesis that there’s some large but silent majority of citizens so disturbed by transgender people’s restroom use that they feel the need for protective legislation is proving, over and over again, to be false. The snake oil is no longer selling.
Indeed, Prop 1 is further proof that anti-transgender bills and ballot initiatives are a failed project. Despite the fact that dozens of “bathroom bills” have been drafted and proposed in state legislatures around the country over the past three years, only North Carolina has successfully passed one—and even then, they eventually walked back the controversial restroom provision after the NCAA threatened to ban championship events in the state.
The Texas “bathroom bill” failed because Republican House Speaker Joe Straus said that he didn’t want “the suicide of a single Texan on [his] conscience.”
And in Washington state last year, an anti-transgender ballot initiative fizzled out for the second year in a row when it failed to get enough signatures to get on the ballot.
The defeat of Anchorage’s Prop 1 less than a year later—in a state that’s more conservative than Washington, no less—shows that voters are now seeing straight through the “privacy” rhetoric deployed in favor of anti-transgender initiatives, and glimpsing the ugly bigotry at their core.
The groups backing these laws and initiatives have failed as far south as Texas and as far north as Alaska—and if they insist on continuing with these Sisyphean efforts, they’ll soon fail everywhere in between, too.