As protections for transgender people become a topic of intense debate in Washington state and nationwide, Democrats are asking themselves how well they can fight for the rights of those individuals when their party’s rules fail to recognize they exist.
Several proposals up for a vote Saturday at the Washington State Democratic Convention in Tacoma would amend party rules that require equal numbers of men and women to serve as delegates and in leadership roles, following the voicing of concerns that the male-female quotas exclude people who don't identify as either.
Democrats said the party’s traditional definition of gender became an issue at recent Democratic caucus meetings, where participants had to identify as male or female to become delegates who could compete for a spot at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Danni Askini, a transgender woman who was chosen as a delegate to the Democratic state convention, said she would have preferred to run as a “nonbinary delegate” if that was an option. Others who don’t identify as strictly male or female also would have preferred an alternative way of identifying themselves, she said.
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“A lot of folks didn’t want to be forced to choose male or female,” Askini said.
Askini, the executive director of the Seattle-based Gender Justice League, said the issue is becoming more important as Democrats hold themselves up as defenders of LGBT rights.
On Friday, several Democrats at the state convention handed out fliers urging people to oppose I-1515, a proposed citizen initiative that would repeal a state rule that allows transgender people to use restrooms that match their gender identity.
Earlier this year, a handful of Republican lawmakers proposed legislation to repeal the transgender bathroom-access rule, but the bills failed to advance.
“Recently, we’ve seen the transgender community has really been under attack right here in the state of Washington,” said state Rep. Noel Frame, a Seattle Democrat who is expected to be elected the chairwoman of the state convention Saturday. “There is no better time to be inclusive.”
Members of the Washington Stonewall Democrats, the state party’s LGBT caucus, discussed the proposed amendments to the party charter during a meeting Friday afternoon, the first day of the state Democratic convention.
“Any bylaw or rule … that is meant to provide for the equitable participation of both males and females shall be so construed so as to also provide for the equitable participation of individuals of any other gender identity,” one of the proposed charter amendments reads.
Another proposed amendment to the party’s governing document would no longer require local Democratic groups to elect a man and a woman to the state Democratic central committee, but instead two people of different gender identities.
“Sometimes you have to educate the membership,” said Jonathan Long, a Democratic delegate at the state convention who lives in White Center. “People don’t understand that gender isn’t an either-or (concept). Gender is a spectrum.”
The measures will be considered Saturday (June 18) by roughly 1,400 Democratic delegates as they vote on changes to the party’s platform, charter and bylaws.
Linda Isenson, the chairwoman of the Pierce County Democrats, said the language requiring equal numbers of men and women to serve in various Democratic roles originally was designed to ensure women wouldn’t be excluded from the political process.
In 2016, however, she said it’s probably time for an update.
“We said, oh yeah — this was progressive when we wrote it like this, but we need to be more progressive and inclusive in these things,” Isenson said.
“It’s all part of our evolution and moving forward.”
The state Democratic convention continues through Sunday at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center.