By Parker Marie Molloy
Originally published on Advocate.com January 07 2014 11:48 AM ET
Opponents of laws and policies that allow trans people access to restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms that correspond with their gender identity often cite hypothetical examples playing on the fear that cisgender (nontrans) people will abuse these policies in an effort to sexually assault or otherwise harm a person of the opposite sex.
Typically, the hypothetical situation goes something like this: A man walks into a women’s restroom, does something lewd, and then gets away with the act by claiming to be transgender. While this is a frightening concept, claims that this kind of harassment is inevitable when trans people are granted equal access lack one critical detail: There have been no reported, verifiable instances of such harassment. In one recent example, a conservative California group claimed that a transgender teenager in Colorado was harassing cisgender students in the bathroom. When the school district and police confirmed that no harassment took place, the group essentially admitted as much, amending its claim to allege that the trans student's presence in the bathroom was "inherently harassing."
On Saturday, Ken Gallinger, the Toronto Star’s “Ethically Speaking” columnist, published unsubstantiated claims that a transgender woman went out of her way to perform inappropriate acts in a women’s locker room. The letter to Gallinger’s column reads:
“I am a senior woman. Recently, a ‘man’ claiming to be transgender, who had not yet begun physical treatments, was permitted by our local Y[MCA] to use the women’s locker room. There are no secure change rooms. The person they allowed in was not courteous and stared at me while I struggled out of a wet bathing suit. He was naked, had an erection and playfully asked ‘do you come here often?’ I understand that gender is no longer judged solely by genitalia, but does a brief contact with the duty manager mean that men not yet committed to gender reassignment are free to disrobe anywhere they choose?”
Gallinger’s response went on to state his belief that transgender women "have the absolute right to use the women’s change room," and that “a transgender woman is a woman, full stop." What Gallinger failed to do, as reported by Cristan Williams and Autumn Sandeen at Transadvocate, was verify that this event did in fact occur.
Sandeen reached out to Gallinger via email in an effort to find out what, if any, vetting he did before publishing this letter.
"It is, of course, not possible for me to substantiate most of the stories I'm told, and frankly, I don’t try," Gallinger replied. "My general policy is to deal with issues as they are presented." It seems as though the only background Gallinger did prior to publishing the anonymous letter was verifying that it came from a valid email address.
Williams argues that it was irresponsible for Gallinger to publish this letter without at least reaching out to area YMCAs to confirm that a situation like this did occur. After all, the letter did claim that this individual had checked in with a YMCA staffer, informing them of their supposed transgender status. Williams called every Toronto-area YMCA in an attempt to give credibility to this anonymous letter.
"No complaint or even rumor of anything like this exists in Toronto-area YMCAs," Williams reports. "Every Toronto area YMCA was shocked to learn that an unsubstantiated claim like this was propagated by the Toronto Star. Every Toronto-area YMCA confirmed that nobody had made any complaint concerning anything even remotely similar to the claim made in the Toronto Star."
"We are invited to accept the ridiculous narrative that this behavior is permissible because Toronto has a trans equality law," Williams continues. She then goes on to highlight the times when similar but unverifiable incidents were reported in Maryland, Washington, California, Colorado, and Texas.
Conservative groups and antitransgender activists have a long history of using tactics like this as a method to both raise funds and attempt to sway public opinion on transgender people and nondiscrimination laws. Kelli Busey at the blog PlaneTransgender contends that Gallinger’s publishing this letter without providing a valid source was "highly unethical" and an instance of "lazy journalism."