Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Dispelling Myths About Public Safety and LGBTQ Equality

By Adam Polaski • April 24, 2018 • 12:43 pm

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, an annual opportunity for people around the world to reflect on and discuss sexual assault and strategies for preventing sexual violence and supporting survivors.

Sexual assault is a very real problem in the United States, and every story of a survivor who speaks about enduring abuse is a painful reminder of the serious work that we all must do to combat such violence. Fears about safety are understandable and should not be dismissed. The #MeToo movement throughout 2017 and 2018 has shined a spotlight on the many challenges that survivors of sexual violence face.

However, in recent years opponents of LGBTQ equality have worked to push dangerous lies about transgender people, linking transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination protections to a rise in sexual assault. These lies divide communities, harm transgender people and their family members, and obscure the manifold causes and issues that are actually connected to sexual violence. Beyond that, they ignore the reality that it is already rightly illegal in every city and state to physically harm, harass, or assault any person for any reason. Existing laws already prohibit unacceptable behavior, including indecent exposure and voyeurism in spaces like restrooms and locker rooms. No one wants to change that.

This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, let’s take a moment to debunk these anti-transgender lies and refocus on the very real challenge of effectively addressing sexual assault. Take a look:

250+ Groups Working to End Sexual Violence Support Transgender Nondiscrimination Protections

National and local sexual assault prevention groups strongly support transgender nondiscrimination laws because they know equal treatment for transgender people in no way poses a threat to public safety. More than 250 organizations working to end sexual assault and domestic violence released a joint statement in 2016, headed by the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. The statement strongly opposes efforts to discriminate against transgender people, reading, in part:

“Nondiscrimination laws do not allow men to go into women’s restrooms—period. The claim that allowing transgender people to use the facilities that match the gender they live every day allows men into women’s bathrooms or women into men’s is based either on a flawed understanding of what it means to be transgender or a misrepresentation of the law.”

Beyond that, the coalition explains that these myths about transgender nondiscrimination laws serve as a distraction to the actual problem and put more people at risk of violence.

“Discriminating against transgender people does not give anyone more control over their body or security,” the statement reads. “Those who perpetuate falsehoods about transgender people and nondiscrimination laws are putting transgender people in harm’s way and making no one safer. We cannot stand by while the needs of survivors, both those who are transgender and those who are not, are obscured in order to push a political agenda that does nothing to serve and protect victims and potential victims. We will only accomplish our goal of ending sexual violence by treating all people, including those who are transgender, with fairness and respect.”

Anchorage: A Case Study in Exposing the Truth Behind Anti-Transgender Lies

Earlier this month the LGBTQ movement clinched a critical first-of-its-kind victory at the ballot in Anchorage, Alaska, when a majority of voters soundly rejected Proposition 1, a ballot initiative that aimed to repeal portions of the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance pertaining to transgender people and redefine the meaning of “sex” with regard to every municipal policy, procedure, and facility. The discriminatory measure aimed to essentially erase transgender people from existence under city code. Opponents of transgender equality relied almost singularly on a message that intentionally and incorrectly conflated transgender people and sexual assault.

Fair Anchorage, the campaign to uphold the transgender protections law, confronted the misleading messages head on with the voices of everyday residents in Anchorage and experts on sexual violence.

One television ad featured Keeley Olson, the executive director of Standing Up Against Rape (STAR), the leading organization in Anchorage working to prevent sexual violence. In the video, Olson debunked the fear-mongering behind Proposition 1 and addressed that while sexual violence is indeed an issue in Anchorage, discriminating against transgender people does not make anyone safer. “Ensuring dignity for transgender people is not a threat to public safety,” Olson said. “We need to support effective methods for reducing violence, not roll back basic protections for transgender people.”

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In a separate video more than a dozen Anchorage women speak out, refusing to allow anti-transgender activists to hurt transgender people in the name of protecting women. “Backers of Proposition 1 often claim they want to protect women in restrooms. … Women’s organizations in Anchorage oppose Proposition 1. Do not harm transgender people in the name of women.”

In the end these messages helped to dismantle Proposition 1, as nearly 53 percent of voters in Anchorage defeated the ballot initiative, making history as the first municipality in the United States to ever uphold transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination protections by popular vote.

How Proponents of Anti-Transgender Discrimination Prey on Fears of Sexual Violence

Over the past several years, many states have attempted to pass or defend laws that discriminate against transgender people and seek to ban them from using the restrooms and facilities that correspond to who they are.

North Carolina’s HB 2 became the most prominent example in 2016. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory convened a special legislative session with the express purpose of passing anti-transgender legislation, ultimately passing HB 2, which overturned LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances across the state, prohibited additional municipalities from passing proactive protections, and restricted transgender people from using restrooms in public buildings. The backlash was swift, with many companies pulling investments and entertainers canceling performances, costing the state over $1 billion in economic investments. Later that year, Republican Governor Pat McCrory lost his bid for reelection, even though Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump won the state by nearly 4 points. Media coverage largely cited HB 2 as the reason.

Prior to North Carolina’s HB 2, opponents of LGBTQ equal treatment in Houston pushed an aggressive campaign against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which extended comprehensive nondiscrimination protections to residents on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other categories. Over the course of just a few months, HERO opponents forced a repeal onto the ballot and spammed the city with a sinister drumbeat of ads vilifying transgender people. “NO MEN IN WOMEN’S BATHROOMS,” the refrain went, misgendering transgender women and stoking fear and misinformation. Their attacks were successful: HERO was repealed in November 2015, a demonstration of the reality that when voters do not have the chance to stop and consider who transgender people are, they fall susceptible to fear-mongering.

Anti-transgender activists also attempted to force an initiative to repeal transgender protections onto the ballot in Washington state. The LGBTQ movement mobilized quickly, forming Washington Won’t Discriminate to head-off the anti-transgender attacks. Two years in a row, in 2016 and in 2017, the Washington Won’t Discriminate team blocked the dangerous, anti-transgender proposal from even appearing on the ballot, sparing the state a divisive conversation that would have inevitably included the opposition’s widespread reliance on deceptive myths about transgender people.

In 2018 at least one more ballot initiative concerning discrimination based on gender identity is set for public vote: Voters in Massachusetts will consider a referendum on a 2016 law protecting transgender people in places of public accommodation. This will mark the first-ever statewide popular vote on transgender rights in the United States. Opponents of the law have relied on anti-transgender lies for the past two years and have already attempted to push them this year, with a campaign ad that was quickly discredited. Freedom for All Massachusetts is the campaign to uphold protections for transgender people. A second ballot initiative could also appear in Montana on Election Day; this week Free & Fair Montana launched a strong coalition dedicated to opposing I-183, an anti-transgender initiative.

Striving for Stronger Communities Free from Discrimination and Violence

The truth is, all Americans value safety and privacy in restrooms, including transgender people – and it is already illegal to commit a crime in a restroom. Laws related to discrimination will not change that – anti-LGBTQ laws will not make people safer, and laws prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination will not increase crime or allow loopholes for criminals.

In the 18 states and more than 250 cities where comprehensive protections have been enacted, there has been no uptick in public safety incidents, even though our opponents have attempted to frame protections as a safety issue. These groups have attempted to hijack the experiences and needs of assault survivors in order to serve their own purposes in demonizing the transgender community.

In July 2016, the summer after the passage of HB2, Freedom for All Americans was proud to work with the Fairness USA coalition, which included the Movement Advancement Project, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and Equality Ohio Education Fund, on the release of a groundbreaking TV ad that premiered during Fox News’ coverage of the Republican National Convention. The ad confronted our opponents’ shameful anti-transgender messages head-on:

It’s time for anti-transgender arguments that shamefully exploit the experiences of sexual violence survivors to end. This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Freedom for All Americans is proud to support the work of our many partners working from a place of knowledge and compassion to combat sexual assault – rather than opponents of transgender equality, who use sexual assault as a political talking point to divide communities and prey on misguided fears.

All Americans are safer and more secure when all people are protected from discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That’s why it’s vital that we stand up against anti-transgender lies every time, refocus attention on the voices of survivors and the true causes of sexual assault, and build stronger communities where no one faces discrimination because of who they are.

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