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Sleepless in Seattle: The Chef, the Quarterback and Transgender Rights

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The Story of Restaurant Mogul John Howie, Seahawks Star Russell Wilson and Anti-LGBT Initiative 1515 in Washington State

In March 2015, a group calling itself Just Want Privacy filed an initiative to repeal some of Washington state’s protections for transgender citizens.

Inspired by North Carolina’s infamous House Bill 2, the initiative was a response to the Washington Human Rights Commission’s ruling in December 2015 that interpreted the state’s 2006 Law Against Discrimination as allowing people to use gender-segregated facilities based on gender identity.

Although the commission described its ruling as merely a clarification of existing state law, it sparked a backlash among those who claimed that such access to bathrooms and locker rooms could allow sexual predators to prey on women and children.

Conservatives in the state legislature attempted to change the commission’s decision, but when they failed, opponents of transgender rights turned to the state’s initiative and referendum process, which allows citizens to legislate directly.

The approved ballot summary for the initiative read as follows: “This measure would amend the Law Against Discrimination to state that, with exceptions, covered public and private entities may restrict access to ‘private facilities’ to ‘biologically’ male or female individuals regardless of their gender identity and limit state and local regulations governing gender-identity discrimination. It requires that public-school bathrooms and locker rooms open to multiple people be sex segregated, and authorizes lawsuits against schools that grant students access to those facilities based on gender identity.”

Known as Initiative 1515, the proposal excited a great deal of controversy in Washington. Just Want Privacy raised more than $335,000, and an opposing group, Washington Won’t Discriminate, raised a little more than $200,000.

If Just Want Privacy could secure 246,000 valid signatures from registered voters, the repeal of transgender protections would appear on the November 2016 ballot.

Previous Referenda on LGBT Rights

Initiative 1515 was not the first time significant LGBT-rights legislation had been subjected to a referendum in Washington state, so some background is necessary to place the latest attempt to roll back advances for the LGBT community in context.

In 2009, the legislature expanded the state’s limited domestic partnership law to confer on same-sex couples all the rights and responsibilities the state made available to married couples. After passing both houses of the legislature with comfortable margins, the bill was signed by Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire.

However, a conservative organization quickly began the process of gathering signatures to repeal the new law. In September 2009, the Washington secretary of state certified the signatures, despite irregularities in collecting and submitting them.

On Nov. 3, 2009, voters in Washington, by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent, approved the domestic partner legislation, making Washington the first state in which same-sex partnerships were affirmed by popular vote.

A similar scenario worked out in 2012, when the legislature, after a heart-wrenching but uplifting debate, passed a marriage equality bill. At an elaborate signing ceremony on Feb. 13, 2012, Gov. Gregoire signed the bill into law, making Washington the first state to repeal a so-called Defense of Marriage Act.

Again, opponents of same-sex marriage began the process to repeal the law. When they turned in a sufficient number of valid signatures in June 2012, the marriage equality legislation was suspended pending the outcome of a referendum.

In the historic election of Nov. 6, 2012, Washington voters were asked whether they approved or rejected the marriage equality legislation passed by the legislature earlier in the year. The answer was yes. As with the domestic partnership question, marriage equality was approved by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent. 

In Washington, the signatures on petitions are considered public information, as are the names of donors to campaigns, including campaigns on behalf or against initiatives and referenda.

In 2009, the proponents of the challenge to the domestic partnership law filed a lawsuit asking to be exempt from the requirement to reveal the names of those who contributed to their campaign, including those who signed the petitions to put the question on the ballot. Citing the anger visited upon donors to Proposition 8 in California, they alleged that their contributors would be harassed and intimidated by those opposed to the referendum.

After being rebuffed by the federal district court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court. In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court in Doe v. Reed upheld the constitutionality of Washington’s Public Records Act. Key to the decision is the finding that participants in the initiative and referendum process are acting as legislators.

In his concurrence, conservative hero Justice Antonio Scalia wrote, “There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance. Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”

The names of the signatories of the petitions to repeal the domestic partnership law, along with the donors to the campaign, were eventually revealed. Despite the dire warnings of the plaintiffs in the case, no incidents of illegal harassment, threats or intimidation were ever documented.

The Campaigns For and Against Initiative 1515

Against this backdrop, the campaign for and against Initiative 1515 began. History showed that Washington voters would support equal rights when the distortions and deceptions of the religious right were countered, so the opponents of Initiative 1515 were confident though wary.

The prospect of having to endure and finance yet another expensive campaign over something as basic as access to bathrooms filled many supporters of equal rights with dread. Thus, they formed Washington Won’t Discriminate in order to mount a pre-emptive challenge to the petition gathering by Just Want Privacy. If they could discourage enough voters from signing the petitions, they could avoid a referendum on transgender rights.

The proponents and supporters of Initiative 1515 included the usual suspects, such as the American Family Association, the National Organization for Marriage, the Alliance Defending Freedom and other hate groups, as well as conservative pastors and churches. Most of the leaders of the campaign, including chairman James Backholm, the executive director of the extremist Washington Family Policy Institute, had also been involved in the struggle against marriage equality.

The Just Want Privacy campaign claimed their initiative was not intended to discriminate against anyone, but was all about protecting privacy and ensuring safety for women and children. Indeed, they alleged that the Human Rights Commission was discriminating against them in order to placate a tiny minority.

Their campaign stoked the fear that sexual predators would pretend to be transgender in order to gain access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms: 

Just Want Privacy was accused of deception in collecting signatures, as when their signature gatherers allegedly misled Pride attendees into believing that their petition was on behalf of a progressive cause. When Backholm told male petitioners “to camp out near women’s restrooms, ask women for their signatures, then follow them into the restroom if they don’t agree to sign,” he was harshly criticized for recommending harassing tactics.

In order to oppose Initiative 1515, Washington Won’t Discriminate formed a broad coalition of clergy members, business leaders and law enforcement officers, as well as leaders of the LGBT communities. Microsoft, Vulcan and Google also signed on to help defeat the Initiative.

Most of the leading newspapers in the state editorialized against the Initiative, including the The Seattle Times, whose editorial board declared that it “would be an utter embarrassment for Washington.”

The editorial pointed out that the initiative “concocts a scenario in which transgender people need their bathroom habits policed. It strips the liberty and dignity of people doing their business in a bathroom matching their gender identity, while putting schools, public universities and even private businesses in a bizarre position to ensure a person’s bathroom choice matches his or her anatomy.”

It also asserted that Initiative 1515 “would put Washington in league with North Carolina, Mississippi and Indiana. Bigotry is bad for business, and corporate leaders in those states denounced the laws.”

Thankfully, on July 7, 2016, Just Want Privacy announced that it had failed to secure a sufficient number of signatures to force Initiative 1515 onto the November ballot. Washington Won’t Discriminate’s pre-emptive tactic of discouraging voters from signing Just Want Privacy’s petitions had succeeded. The progressive community breathed a sigh of relief that for the first time in several general election cycles, in November there would be no referenda sponsored by socially conservative groups intent on attacking equal rights.

Russell Wilson and Ciara

Perhaps the most famous celebrities opposing Initiative 1515 were Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and singer, songwriter and actress Ciara.

Their opposition became apparent when Wilson and Ciara revealed that they had originally planned to be married in North Carolina, but decided to move their wedding because of HB2. The couple celebrated their nuptials in England, where they were married in a lavish ceremony in July:

Ciara was already known as an ally of the LGBT community since she had spoken out in support of Jason Collins when he became the first active NBA player to declare he was gay in 2013. She also made an “It Gets Better” video in 2010:

But Wilson, who played both baseball and football at North Carolina State before leading the University of Wisconsin to the Big Ten championship in 2011, is better known as a devout Christian than a social activist.

Since coming to Seattle in 2012, Wilson has become one of the city’s sports icons. In his first season as a Seahawk, he tied Peyton Manning’s record for most passing touchdowns by a rookie quarterback and was named the NFL Rookie of the Year. In 2013, he led the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl victory; and, in 2014, to another Super Bowl berth.

Hence, the revelation that he is opposed to discrimination against transgender citizens became news.

The Chef and the Quarterback

When Seattle Times food writer Bethany Jean Clement discovered through the Washington Public Disclosure Commission’s database of campaign donors that celebrity chef John Howie had donated $1,000 to the Just Want Privacy campaign, it must have seemed a no-brainer to write a story about it.

Howie is not simply a private individual. He owns several restaurants in Seattle, including the Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar, the SPORT Restaurant and Bar, John Howie Steak, and Beardslee Public House and Wildwood Spirits Co., among others. In addition, Howie frequently appears on Seattle TV and radio programs, and has made numerous appearances on national food shows such as Martha Stewart Living, The CBS Morning Show and programs on the Cooking Channel. He is author of a cookbook and is known as a philanthropist.

In her story, published on Aug. 24, Clement not only reported that Howie had signed the Just Want Privacy petition and donated $1,000 to the campaign, but she also contrasted his position with that of Wilson. The contrast is particularly appropriate since Howie was recently awarded a contract to provide food at the Seahawks Stadium.

In the story, Wilson confirmed that he and Ciara moved their wedding from North Carolina because of HB2, and explained his support for equal rights simply and forthrightly: “I just believe that Jesus loves all people. That’s honestly what I believe.”

Howie explained that his decision to support Initiative 1515 was due to concerns about who could gain access to women’s bathrooms. “I think that there’s a chance that the law could be abused by somebody,” he said. “I think somebody who is not transgender, a sex offender, could abuse the law — somebody who is just out to put themselves into a women’s, or a boys’, bathroom, for that matter.

“I have grandchildren that are going to be affected by this law,” Howie added. “Sex offenders scare the living daylights out of me. I think pedophiles can take advantage of this.”

In other words, Howie parroted the talking points of Just Want Privacy.

Within a day, however, Howie completely reversed his position. On Aug. 25, after a sleepless night, “a very eye-opening 24 hours,” he posted an emotional video on Facebook, apologizing for his previous views.

It has been an eye-opening 24 hours. I'd really appreciate it if you'd take the time to watch this.

Posted by Chef John Howie on Thursday, August 25, 2016

“I’m sorry to the people that I have harmed or negatively affected with my words and actions,” he said in the video. “It’s not who I am, and it’s not who I want to be.

“My concerns about the proposed law were based on fear, not facts,” he added. 

During his sleepless night, Howie developed “a much better understanding of how this law would’ve affected many in the community, especially those in the LGBTQ community, and especially those who are transgender.”

After promising that he would never again “support a proposed law that would affect people negatively as this would have,” he pledges that “in the future I will be more diligent, that I will research more carefully, that I will understand the things that I choose to support and make sure that they are the right choice.”

He concluded the video by echoing the words of Wilson, “It’s truly my belief that God loves all people, and that with love and respect, we can all live together.”

The Aftermath

Supporters of Just Want Privacy initially celebrated Howie’s defense of his donation to their cause, calling him “courageous” and a “man of conviction.” But when he recanted, they attacked him on Facebook and other forums as a “flip-flopper” and a coward.

In a post at the Family Policy Institute of Washington, Joseph Backholm declared that the chef had been “shaken down” by “modern day witch hunters.” He counted him among such “victims” of gay “bullying” as Brendan Eich, who allegedly lost his job at Mozilla for having donated to Proposition 8.

Many commenters accused Bethany Jean Clement of writing a hit piece designed to punish Howie for his beliefs. They said that in doing so she violated his First Amendment rights.

At the right-wing GetReligion blog, which bills itself as a journalism site dedicated to exposing shortcomings in the mainstream media’s depiction of religion but that most often uses critiques of journalism simply as a pretext for its own editorializing, Julia Duin criticized The Seattle Times for “outing” Chef Howie and asserted that donors to Just Want Privacy have been harassed.

Describing Howie’s video recantation as “groveling,” she quotes approvingly a Seattle Times reader who says: “This is one of the scariest videos I’ve seen in a long time. It reminds me of the Great Purge Stalin instigated in the Soviet Union in 1930s.”

In contrast to the assumption by the right-wing bloggers and Facebook posters that Howie had been forced to recant his real opinions, the overwhelming majority of the commenters on Howie’s Facebook page were positive. They thanked him for his change of heart and characterized his apology as genuine and moving.

Zack Ford at Think Progress described the apology as “heartfelt.”

Similarly, Kelli Busey of Planet Transgender hailed Howie as a “truly incredible man” whose heart had been opened in a “loving and compassionate way.”

It is, of course, not possible to know with certainty what is in Howie’s heart.

Did he change his mind because his LGBT customers expressed their displeasure? Was he fearful that his restaurants might be the target of a boycott organized by LGBT groups? Did it belatedly dawn on him that it may not be a good business move for a restaurateur in a notably liberal city — presided over by an openly gay mayor — to endorse a socially conservative initiative designed to harm transgender citizens?

All those scenarios are possible, but it is also possible that the chef simply listened to the stories of LGBT men and women and learned how they would have been affected by Initiative 1515. He may have educated himself or been educated by others as to the discrimination faced by transgender people. He may also have learned about the deception practiced by the proponents of the initiative and how they traffic in fear rather than fact.

In any case, the idea that Clement “outed” Chef Howie is ludicrous. His donation and signature are public information. Duin’s post to the contrary, it is the purpose of journalists to disseminate information, not conceal it. There is no reason to believe that Clement revealed the donation with an intent to harass or even embarrass Howie, who initially seemed quite happy to own and defend his donation to and support for Initiative 1515.

It is telling that the right-wingers believe that the names of donors to anti-LGBT initiatives should be kept secret. Although their patron saint, Scalia, is the great champion of “civic courage” and of people willing to stand up for their beliefs, the proponents of anti-LGBT initiatives and referenda want to cloak their actions in darkness. 

Even if, as the right-wingers suggest, Howie was threatened with a boycott, that hardly makes him a victim. Boycotts are a cornerstone of American democracy, used by both sides of controversial issues. Indeed, the anti-LGBT crusaders themselves frequently threaten pro-LGBT businesses with boycotts. They have boycotted a host of corporations, from Disney to Target. 

The charge that Clement somehow violated Howie’s First Amendment rights in disclosing his donation to Just Want Privacy is also absurd. One hardly violates a person’s free speech rights by giving them space in a newspaper article to speak. Moreover, First Amendment rights include the freedom of the press as well as the rights of individuals to speak freely without fear of government censorship.

Such charges actually reveal how little the opponents of equal rights understand about freedom of speech. What they want is the right to make outrageous statements about LGBT people without experiencing any negative consequences. They seem not to understand that LGBT people also have free speech rights, and those include the right to counter their statements and even to say unkind things about them. Freedom of expression also includes the right not to patronize businesses owned by those who further discrimination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Image: Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks  via Flickr:
President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump talk with Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, her husband Jesse Barrett, Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, his wife Virginia Thomas, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, and Deputy White House Counsel Kate Comerford Todd in the Blue Room of the White House Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, after attending Barrett’s swearing-in ceremony as Supreme Court Associate Justice.

 

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Image: The Bidens watch the fireworks from the White House on July 4, 2021. Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz.

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