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YMCA explains changing its transgender policy after more than 1,000 complaints

A policy by the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap counties that allows transgender individuals the ability to choose the locker room he or she feels most comfortable with is being met with concern. (MyNorthwest file photo)

UPDATE

Following complaints from the public, Bob Ecklund, President and CEO of the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap county, issued a statement on Oct. 5 saying the organization is modifying the policy for transgender individuals in locker rooms and restrooms in “family facilities.” Ecklund said the change was to ensure youth are not exposed to the opposite sex in their locker room.

Ecklund said the new policy states that “transgender members in transition will use private locker rooms for dressing and showering. Transgender members may use standalone restrooms that align with their gender identification.” The change applies to: Gordon Family YMCA, Mel Korum Family YMCA, Lakewood Family YMCA, Morgan Family YMCA, Tom Taylor Family YMCA, Bremerton Family YMCA, Haselwood Family YMCA.

For locker rooms at “adult facilities,” transgender members may use locker rooms and restrooms that align with their gender identification. That applies to Tacoma Center YMCA and University Y Student Center.

“We understand transgender individuals who are in transition often face a dilemma on where to change and shower, and the Y strives to be a place to be safe and inclusive of everyone in our care,” Ecklund wrote.

“I want to emphasize this narrow revision of the policy is focused on dressing and showering spaces only, as they are the most sensitive spaces in our facility, especially as it relates to children.”

Michelle Larue, Senior Vice President of Marketing with the Pierce and Kitsap YMCA, told KTTH’s Todd Herman on Wednesday that there had previously been no policy for the “fairly low” number of transgender members, some who had been with the YMCA for 10 or more years, and that there have been no incidents of inappropriate exposure or use since the initial policy change in April.

Larue said the YMCA received “quite a reaction” since the policy went public, receiving more than 1,000 comments on the issue. Larue said they didn’t broadly inform the public about the initial policy change out of respect to the transgender individuals and that the intent was not to keep anyone in the dark.

“We didn’t have any reason we felt to inform the masses about this change when there was seemingly no effect on the way that we were operating or using our locker rooms,” she said. “I can tell you today, we’ve heard that concern loud and clear and we apologize if we misled or made any members feel like they were in the dark. That was not our intent by any means and today we are communicating broadly on Facebook and through email, and here, as much as we can.

“The number of people our transgender members was so small, and we had not had any incidents, nor have we since, of inappropriate use or overt exposure in our locker rooms, we just didn’t feel it was necessary to broadcast at that time. And again we are communicating now and making sure our members know our policies and locker room practices based on their feedback.”

Herman said he understood both perspectives on the issue, but asked Larue, “Father to mother, Michelle, should a 15-year-old girl feel OK with the possibility that she might shower next to someone who is biologically male?”

“As you’ve heard from our members, just as we’ve heard, they are all over the spectrum, right?” Larue responded. “Everyone has a different opinion on that. And so that is an individual family decision and we respect their decisions.”

YMCA’s attorney, Sal Mungia, told Herman a sign explaining the policy would likely be placed on the locker rooms at the adult facilities. He said the wordage would be decided “very carefully.”

“This is such a hard subject to be able to put down succinctly,” he said. “It’s a sign, right – you can’t have a bunch of fine print and to get the message across quickly and accurately. So this policy just went into effect, I think it’s going to take some time to figure out a way to convey that message so people can understand it very quickly.”

Ecklund noted in his release that as a nonprofit in Washington State, YMCAs are both “employers” and “places of public accommodation,” and that they are required to comply with all laws regulating employers and places of public accommodations.

“Washington State recognizes transgender rights and prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which includes gender identity,” Ecklund wrote. “We believe we are both following the law and accommodating our diverse groups of members. We also note this is an evolving area of the law, and we will continue to stay tuned to updates from Washington State.”

ORIGINAL STORY

A policy instituted by the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap counties has one mom worried about her children’s safety.

KTTH’s Todd Herman spoke with Jill, a mother and volunteer at YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties, about the policy enacted in April that gives transgender individuals the ability to choose the locker room he or she feels most comfortable with, no questions asked.

Jill said that her concerns are not an attack on transgender people, but more a criticism of the policy itself, which was never announced to the public or employees. She said the policy allows anybody to walk into either bathroom, which puts children at danger.

“Anybody who might want to go in there, (employees) can’t ask them, they can’t tell them no,” she said. “So any man can say, hey, I’m transgender’ and go in that way.”

“The employees didn’t know about this,” she added. “The public doesn’t know about it. YMCA doesn’t plan to inform the membership or potential members.”

Herman also said he spoke with Michelle Larue, Senior Vice President of Marketing with the Pierce and Kitsap YMCA, who told him that the organization has spent a lot of time speaking about ways to better accommodate the transgender community. A public forum on the issue was held Sunday; an attendee told Herman that approximately 50 people showed up.

Herman said some parents are asking that a written notice be placed at the locker room that informs people that they might encounter people of the opposite gender in the bathroom. He said the YMCA’s response has only been that the organization is committed to inclusion and diversity.

Jill believes the new policy also contradicts portions of the YMCA’s child abuse prevention training, most notably that abuse is more likely to happen if somebody who wants to do harm to children is given access and privacy, and that anywhere a child is scantily clothed or naked &#8212 e.g. pool or locker room facilities &#8212 the chance of sexual abuse increases. She added that it’s not only children who might feel uncomfortable.

“You cannot blend in when you are not anatomically correct in the opposite sex locker room,” she said. “This is not possible … Do you want an anatomically correct man showering with your wife or daughter? Or how about an anatomically correct female showering with your teenage son?”

“In my opinion, seeing a naked man in my locker room is sexual harassment for me,” she said. “That’s the way I feel about it. This isn’t specifically singling out transgenders, it’s singling out the policy that would allow anybody who wants to abuse it to be in there.”

Michelle Douglas, Executive Director at the Rainbow Center, an LGBTQA community center in Tacoma, said she hadn’t seen the YMCA’s policy and wouldn’t speculate on its implications. She said the Rainbow Center is unequivocal about its stance that people should be free to use the restroom or locker room that they identify with. She said Washington State nondiscrimination laws are not new and that some organizations have moved faster to make updates than others. She said the Rainbow Center still hears a lot of “misguided concerns” about this topic.

“People have lost sight of why they go to the restroom or locker room in the first place, which is to go to the restroom or to change and get ready for work,” she said. “I think there is a lot of fear mongering around these pieces and I just don’t feel that it’s accurate.”

Larue told Herman that people who feel uncomfortable with the change can use one of the YMCA’s private rooms. Herman asked whether fairness is truly being spread around to everyone and that there should be better communication.

FULL STATEMENT

Bob Ecklund, President and CEO of the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap county, issued the following statement on Oct. 5:

A Message to Our Members and Community

The Y’s mission is to serve everyone, regardless of financial circumstance, faith, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. As our community changes, we often find ourselves in the unfamiliar, but remain committed to creating a culture focused on safety and inclusivity.

In April 2015, the YMCA created a policy to demonstrate our commitment to our transgender community. Previously, we had no policies with regard to this community. As a community-based non-profit organization, we are committed to reflecting the diverse communities we serve. We also have a foundational commitment to child abuse prevention.

CURRENT ACTION

Recently, we have heard from some concerned members and citizens regarding this policy, and would identify the key concerns as follows:

1.Protecting children from inappropriate exposure to nudity in the locker rooms, including the potential abuse of our locker room use by non-transgender individuals.

2.A lack of communication with our members about this practice upon implementation.

3.Clear interpretation of the Y’s legal obligations.

In our best effort to maintain a strong relationship with our diverse membership base and ensure youth are not exposed to the opposite sex in their locker room, we are implementing the following policy that modifies our existing policy:

A continued commitment to diversity, inclusion, and safety: The Y’s mission is to serve everyone, regardless of financial circumstance, faith, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. We understand transgender individuals who are in transition often face a dilemma on where to change and shower, and the Y strives to be a place to be safe and inclusive of everyone in our care.

Locker Room use at family facilities: Transgender members in transition will use private locker rooms for dressing and showering. Transgender members may use standalone restrooms that align with their gender identification. This applies to the following centers: Gordon Family YMCA, Mel Korum Family YMCA, Lakewood Family YMCA, Morgan Family YMCA, Tom Taylor Family YMCA, Bremerton Family YMCA, Haselwood Family YMCA. All policies and procedures are subject to revision and modification based upon new data or changes in the law; this is especially true in this evolving area of the law.

Locker Room use at adult facilities: Transgender members may use locker rooms and restrooms that align with their gender identification. This applies to the following centers: Tacoma Center YMCA and University Y Student Center. All policies and procedures are subject to revision and modification based upon new data or changes in the law; this is especially true in this evolving area of the law.

FUTURE ACTION

The YMCA’s leadership team is working with local leaders representing the diverse areas of our community, including faith-based leaders, LGBTQA leaders, school districts, legal counsel, and diversity and inclusion consultants.

We also want to hear from our members on this topic, and encourage everyone to submit questions, comments, and concerns to president@ymcapkc.org. The YMCA exists to serve you, and we want to ensure your voice is heard, and as such, all inquiries will be shared with the staff leadership team.

The Y’s leadership team is committed to finding a solution that we believe best represents the diverse population we serve.

COMMITMENT TO CHILD ABUSE PREVENTION

The Y is rigorous in our commitment to children’s safety, with a focus on preventative efforts. All 2,000 staff are trained to prevent any kind of abuse, especially as it relates to our youth population. All staff undergo training upon hire, and take an annual course to ensure the principles stay fresh. For members, we scan identification of every person who uses our facility, including members, community members, and guests. We run identifications through an on-the-spot sex offender database that reports convictions of sex-related offenses locally or nationally. Further, we scan our entire database every three months to discover whether anyone in our database has a sex offense conviction after their initial identification scan. Members with sex offense convictions are not allowed to enter Y facilities.

LEGAL INTERPRETATION

As a non-profit in Washington State, YMCAs are both “employers” and “places of public accommodation,” and we are required to comply with all laws regulating employers and places of public accommodations. Washington State recognizes transgender rights and prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which includes gender identity.

We believe we are both following the law and accommodating our diverse groups of members. We also note this is an evolving area of the law, and we will continue to stay tuned to updates from Washington State.

IN CLOSING

I want to emphasize this narrow revision of the policy is focused on dressing and showering spaces only, as they are the most sensitive spaces in our facility, especially as it relates to children.

The growing diversity of the U.S. population makes inclusion by and within YMCAs increasingly important. While diversity enriches and improves us, it sometimes includes the unfamiliar, which we will navigate using our four core values of caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility. We hope our staff, members, volunteers, and community will navigate this way with us as well.

We thank you for your patience and understanding as we navigate this unfamiliar territory.

About the Author

Eric Mandel

Eric Mandel joined MyNorthwest.com and 710 ESPN Seattle in August of 2015 after almost a decade of reporting at daily and non-daily newspapers in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Washington. Email Eric at emandel@mynorthwest.com

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