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November 14, 2013

Colleen Francis and the infamous Evergreen State College incident

The mere mention of the incident should send shivers down your spine. Trans people who support protections based on gender identity should feel nervous when Colleen’s name is mentioned. If you’re trans, you should hope that this incident fades into the distance and is never brought up in polite conversations.

For the uninitiated, here’s a recap from Fox News:

A Washington college said their non-discrimination policy prevents them from stopping a transgender man from exposing himself to young girls inside a women’s locker room, according to a group of concerned parents.

“Little girls should not be exposed to naked men, period,” said David Hacker, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom. A group of concerned parents contacted the legal firm for help.

Hacker said a 45-year-old male student, who dresses as a woman and goes by the name Colleen Francis, undressed and exposed his genitals on several occasions inside the woman’s locker room at Evergreen State College.

Students from nearby Olympia High School as well as children at a local swimming club share locker rooms with the college.

According to a police report, the mother of a 17-year-old girl complained after her daughter saw the transgender individual walking naked in the locker room. A female swim coach confronted the man sprawled out in a sauna exposing himself. She ordered him to leave and called police.

The coach later apologized when she discovered the man was transgendered but explained there were girls using the facility as young as six years old who weren’t used to seeing male genitals.
“They’re uncomfortable with him being in there, her, being in there and are shocked by it,” parent Kristi Holterman told KIRO-TV.

According to the police report, the local district attorney probably will not pursue charges because he said the “criminal law is very vague in this area.”

Francis told KIRO-TV that he was born a man but chose to live as a woman in 2009. Francis said he felt discriminated against after he was told told leave.

Hacker and local parents are outraged over the college’s response to the incident.

“The idea that the college and the local district attorney will not act to protect young girls is appalling,” he said. “What Americans are seeing here is the poisoned fruit of so-called ‘non-discrimination’ laws and policies.”
Placing this man’s proclivities ahead of protecting little girls is beyond unacceptable, Hacker said.
A spokesman for the college did not return calls seeking comment.

Hacker said the college could be held liable for damages if any of the young girls is harmed by the transgendered individual.

“Clearly, allowing a person who is biologically a man to undress and expose himself to young girls places those girls at risk for emotional distress and harm,” he wrote in a letter to the college. “Any reasonable person would view this as dangerous to the young girls involved. The fact that this individual was sitting in plain view of young girls changing into their swimsuits puts you and Evergreen on notice of possible future harm.”

There was a strongly worded letter from a legal group who took up the cause to keep Francis from walking around nude in front of 6 year olds. Then there was the police report with statements from a parents who were reporting what they say their daughter reported to them.

Here are the facts. On several occasions recently,  these children saw a naked man in the  women’s locker room sauna who was displaying his genitalia… There has been a problem for many years now of men using the women’s locker room, especially the sauna. The ongoing problem, including the situation with Francis, regardless of his personal beliefs, endangers the young girls who use Evergreen’s locker room and pool. – Alliance Defending Freedom for Faith and Justice, November 1, 2012

The police report explained that on Wednesday, September 26th at 5:12 PM Tiffany Write, who is a swim coach for Evergreen Swim Club (no affiliation with the Evergreen College) had Officers Brewster and Koppenhaver respond to the Campus Recreation Center (CRC) on a report of a man in the women’s locker room.

There you have it. This is the case that proves all those who stand against trans equality laws right.  There’s a letter from a group who wants to defend freedom and faith, there’s the early report from Fox News AND a police report. The evidence is incontrovertible. Case closed. Right?

RIGHT?!?

So, I was listening to a podcast of people talking about this situation as a cautionary tale. This case, they agreed, proved that trans-equality laws can, and sometimes do, go too far. In fact, when I debated Arizona State Representative John Kavanagh about his efforts to criminalize the use of restrooms by trans people, he pointed to this case as being his evidence for the need to ban trans people from using hygiene facilities which correspond to their gender identity. This case has become the rhetorical linchpin for practically all narratives arguing against trans equality policies.

Under the guise of “prohibiting discrimination” against people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, The Phoenix City Council is considering an ordinance riddled with devastating legal and ethical consequences…

Look no further than Olympia, Washington to discover the consequences of laws like the Bathroom Bill. Late last year, when one Washington family complained that a 45-year-old male college student was permitted to enter a girls’ locker room and expose himself in front of their 17-year-old daughter, authorities informed them the man was allowed to be there because he claimed to be transgender. – The Center for Arizona Policy

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What if I were to tell you that the reports are, on the whole, false?

What if I were to tell you that, unlike the mountains of reports citing Fox News, the ex-gay advocacy group (oh, did I fail to mention – just like the news reports did – that the Alliance Defending Freedom for Faith and Justice is an ex-gay group?), and the police report, I called the college, got the facts and learned that the facts don’t exactly match up with the myth of the now infamous Evergreen State College incident?

Here’s the nugget of truth to the story: two teens did claim to see Colleen Francis nude while in the Evergreen College sauna.

Here’s what may not have not heard:

  • The sauna area was off limits to the two teens.
  • Unless one specifically tries to see inside the sauna, you can’t view the people inside the sauna.
  • Colleen Francis AND her cisgender female friend were using the sauna together. They were sitting there talking.
  • At no point did Francis act to expose herself to children.
  • At no point was Francis walking around nude in the area where children were.

So, the actual story is that two 17 year olds went into an area they weren’t allowed, attempted to view the people in the sauna and saw Francis. The rest of what you’ve probably heard about this incident is, at this point, an urban myth.

My conversation with Todd Sprague, the Executive Director of College Relations was preceded by an email exchange which immediately brought into question everything I thought I know about this incident. Sprague wrote, “Unfortunately many news reports and online commentaries have chosen to take a sensational, and often inaccurate, path in characterizing what has and has not happened at Evergreen.” He went on to clarify, “On the occasion that sparked the media coverage, the individual in question was using the sauna, an area generally off limits to swim team members.” Sprague also made it clear that this was “one incident that occurred in September 2012, not multiple incidents” and that Francis was “covered up with a towel on the way to the sauna and when leaving it. ”

I had more questions, so I called Sprague and recorded the call:

Do you notice anything familiar about the trajectory of this story?

  1. Something is said to have happened
  2. Anti-gay group gets involved.
  3. Anti-gay group issues a strongly worded letter to the school and to the media.
  4. Far right-wing media picks it up and only quotes the ex-gay group.
  5. A mainstream media outlet runs the story citing the right-wing media outlet.
  6. The story explodes and becomes a talking point to be used by anti-LGBT political activists.

Where have I seen this exact strategy deployed before?

What about that story in LA where it was claimed that a trans kid was scurrying up the walls of restroom stalls to peek at the cis girls?

  1. Something is said to have happened? 
  2. Anti-gay group gets involved? 
  3. Anti-gay group issues a strongly worded letter to the school and to the media? 
  4. Far right-wing media picks it up and only quotes the ex-gay group? 
  5. A mainstream media outlet runs the story citing the right-wing media outlet? 
  6. The story explodes and becomes a talking point to be used by anti-LGBT political activists 

How about the story in Colorado where it was claimed that a trans kid was sexually harassing cis girls in the restroom?

  1. Something is said to have happened? 
  2. Anti-gay group gets involved? 
  3. Anti-gay group issues a strongly worded letter to the school and to the media? 
  4. Far right-wing media picks it up and only quotes the ex-gay group? 
  5. A mainstream media outlet runs the story citing the right-wing media outlet? 
  6. The story explodes and becomes a talking point to be used by anti-LGBT political activists 

Let’s see what happens when any one of these steps is interrupted.

Do you remember when an Oakland, California school employee said that kids were being raped and molested because of protections for trans children? No? That’s because this is what happened:

  1. Something is said to have happened? 
  2. The TransAdvocate contacts the school to fact check the assertion and it turns out that the claim was substantively false.

Here are the facts associated with that claim: the person did work for the Oakland school district and in the history of the school district’s existence, both rape and murder had occurred in the district and did involve school students, but it had nothing to do with trans kids (unless you count Oakland cis kids setting non-cis kids on fire).

Even when reports like this are posted on satire sites, the report is lined up to engage this process for manufacturing anti-trans talking points. It was reported that school children were being forced crossdress in order gain appreciation for LGBTQ people. Here’s where the process of manufacturing anti-trans talking points fell apart:

  1. Something is said to have happened? 
  2. Anti-gay group gets involved? 
  3. TransAdvocate fact checks, finds the story to be a hoax and then mocks the anti-gay group:

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What would have been the headlines for the Evergreen College incident had the process of manufacturing talking points been interrupted? Would anyone have ever heard of Evergreen College or Colleen Frances?

As I said at the beginning of this article, the mere mention of the incident should send shivers down your spine… Because the story was manufactured to specifically elicit that response. This story has served those who stand against trans equality measures well. It’s been used as a talking point for TERFs, radical right pundits and elected lawmakers alike and it’s time to call BS, not only on this talking point, but on the process that manufactures them.

Colleges Evergreen State College

Right-wing signage targeting Evergreen College

 


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Cristan Williams
Cristan Williams
Cristan Williams is a trans historian and pioneer in addressing the practical needs of the transgender community. She started the first trans homeless shelter in the South and co-founded the first federally funded trans-only homeless program, pioneered affordable healthcare for trans people in the Houston area, won the right for trans people to change their gender on Texas ID prior to surgery, started numerous trans social service programs and founded the Transgender Center as well as the Transgender Archives. Cristan is the editor at the social justice sites TransAdvocate.com and TheTERFs.com, is a long-term member and previous chair of the City of Houston HIV Prevention Planning Group.

17 Comments

  1. texasyojimbo says:


    The Houston Press’s Jef Rouner, speaking as a parent, tells it like it is:

    This is the scenario people opposed to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance want me to believe is going to happen: my little girl, all pink eyeglasses, blond curls, and a sass level over 9,000, will need to use a public restroom at the park or a restaurant. Once in there she will be at the mercy of a transwoman, maybe even one with a penis, who will use the rights protected by HERO to… what? Pee within a certain amount of feet from her? Expose herself? Molest her? What diabolical she-penis monstrosity has the City unleashed on our powerless womenfolk?
    I’ve got to tell you I know a fair amount of trans folks, and the idea of any of them in the bathroom with my daughter scares me way less than the thought of someone who honestly holds these beliefs being in there with her does.
    I’ve got to tell you I know a fair amount of trans folks, and the idea of any of them in the bathroom with my daughter scares me way less than the thought of someone who honestly holds these beliefs being in there with her does.
    First of all, let’s get something out of the way that shouldn’t need saying: exposing yourself to people in public, physically molesting or assaulting them, and raping them, will still be illegal with HERO. Whether the perpetrator is another child, a 60-year-old grandmother, or a trans person is irrelevant.
    Second, I researched HERO extensively last year in a cover story for the Houston Press, and among the many things I found out in my investigation was that lists of trans people caught abusing similar ordinances to expose themselves in public were generally bullshit. Most lists are compiled by the Family Research Council and then spread through the media by regular Fox correspondent Todd Starnes without any apparent fact-checking. Equal rights ordinances that include protection for gender identity do not lead to any verifiable uptick of sex crimes involving women and bathrooms. They just don’t.

    Rouner notes that anti-HERO gender-policing might make it harder for parents to help their children in public restrooms, and further notes that gender-policing is often used to harass cis-gender people as well:

    Second, and this is the one that bothers me the most, what’s to stop those same absolutists from endangering my wife and daughter? I mean, if someone is dead set on keeping penises out of the female restroom and there’s no inherent legal protection in place for gender identity (note: cis is also a gender identity) what’s to stop that person from demanding my wife, or even my daughter, prove she doesn’t have a penis? Yes, my wife and daughter are both very girly-girls that fit nicely into the presumed feminine ideal of the American mindset, but so do lots of transwomen. Since the whole idea behind the fear is that dicks are infiltrating “undercover”, presumably all it would take is some yokel’s reasonable doubt to end up with the women I love searched for their secret perverted attack dongs. Don’t think for a second this doesn’t already happen.
    Given the choice between an imaginary wave of trans predators or an empowered lot of bigots using the law to police gender and gender identity at their whim, I know which one I feel safer sending my kid into. She’ll need HERO in her future far more than she’ll need outdated fear-mongering. One day she may be pregnant, or a veteran, or disabled, or hopefully old, and HERO looks out for all those people. Who do opponents of HERO look out for? The sort of folk that feel they have a right to judge where you can go by your genitals. As far as I’m concerned that makes them as trustworthy as witch-hunters stripping women to search for the devil’s mark, and I prefer those people as far from me and mine as possible.

    As Rouner’s citations make clear – when equal-rights protections are put into place, this doesn’t cause men to “dress up” so that they can “infiltrate” bathrooms. Austin, which has a trans-inclusive public accommodations law, has never had a problem with it. Nationally, there are exactly zero cases of this.
    But, when you empower bigots, things can get ugly. In addition to the Detroit case that Rouner cites, there was of course the infamous Astrodome incident, this case in Mississippi, and this personal story.
    Because cisgender and non-transgender-non-gender-conforming women are so often targeted by errant transphobia, it is obvious that any self-described feminist or LGBT ally who would oppose HERO is a special kind of stupid.
    The thing is, none of this humiliating gender-policing would be legal even if Proposition 1 fails to pass. It’s the flip-side of the argument ( Rouner made earlier) that it will still be illegal to harass people in bathrooms even if you let transgender people pee.
    But I think Jef Rouner does make a good point, although it’s as much subtext-as-text. To wit: the HERO debate is largely about power. Specifically, the power of transphobes and the religious right to dictate the terms of social behavior.
    Don’t believe me? Just look at the mentality of anti-HERO big-wigs like Steve Hotze, who projects his totalitarian fantasies onto his opponents:

    “Just like there was a communist manifesto, there’s a homosexual manifesto,” Hotze said. “The hackles will stand up on the back of your neck when you see what they have planned.”
    Copies of the manifesto were sitting on every seat in the audience, although the copies Hotze distributed omitted the first line of the original, which establishes the text as a “cruel fantasy.” The “manifesto” is a satirical essay, originally written in 1987, a strange and hilarious imagining of a world in which gay men reign as oppressors over lowly straights.
    “Your sons shall become our minions and do our bidding,” reads one line. “All churches who condemn us will be closed. Our only gods are handsome young men. We adhere to a cult of beauty,” the manifesto continues, concluding after many paragraphs: “Tremble, hetero swine, when we appear before you without our masks.” A legally required disclosure immediately beneath Hotze’s version reads “Reprinted and Paid for by Campaign For Texas Families PAC.”

    He’s not the only one. Witness the freak-out last year when sermons (speeches which are intended to be preached to the whole world and are not exactly “private”) were subpoenaed:
    From Andy Woods — “The recent actions of the Houston city government surrounding its passage and protection of HERO (“Houston Equal Rights Ordinance”) borders on what one would expect of a third world banana republic dictatorship rather than what we would expect to find in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
    Mollie Hemingway — “totalitarianism of extremist wings of the gay rights movement.”
    Kathy Howard — “So let’s just call this thing what it is. Christian persecution. Right here in the good ‘ole USA. Right here in the Lone Star State.”
    And look how, in this current campaign, the antis are claiming that HERO constitutes “religious persecution” when in fact the ordinance would protect religion:
    Charles Blain — “There is no doubt the mayor will use any political capital left during her term’s remaining six months to campaign hard to ensure that voters uphold HERO and her practice of religious persecution.”
    Dave Wilson — “It was not rooted in eternal law and natural law. They circumvented the will of the people, refused to let people vote, violated the First Amendment, threatened our religious freedom, refused to follow man’s law and they violated God’s law.”
    Ed Young — “Those of us who believe men should use men’s facilities and women should use women’s facilities—we will be discriminated against.”
    Look at their own words! The opponents of Proposition One are terribly, terribly afraid of losing power — of being “persecuted” or “oppressed” or “discriminated against” — even though the law they are opposing expressly prohibits religious bias! One must conclude that either they have, collectively, lost their minds, or that what they are really saying is that they feel entitled to hold a monopoly on power, and cannot fathom having to share it with others.
    Do you really want people like that, people so entitled and yet so insecure, to win this election? And do you think, if they win, that they won’t feel empowered – nay, obligated! – to leverage their newly-vindicated grip on power?
    To be sure, I do not think that these folks will “go gently into the night” if HERO passes. I think they will obstruct and whine and pout. They will probably try to get the Supreme Court of Texas to throw it out, again (they do have a pretty good track record in court; it helps when the judges are politically-beholden to you).
    Nevertheless, having a majority of Houston voters, on record, opposing them, ought to take a little bit of the wind out of their sails. And that, really, would be in everyone’s best interests.
    On a related note, Bob McNair has walked back his donation to Campaign For Houston (the anti-HERO group). So we can go back to resenting him only for the incompetence of the Texans. Thanks a lot, Bob!
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  2. […] vague “I’ve heard lots of stories” kind. The one story that showed up over and over was the Evergreen State College incident. To be honest, I couldn’t sort out the truth about that one from what I could source up […]

  3. […] omitted from mainstream coverage. Here’s what Cristan Williams, a writer for The TransAdvocate, wrote in response a year later after speaking to the school’s president and other […]

  4. […] Fallacy’ against transwomen. The most recent incarnation of this particular fallacy is the (now thoroughly DEBUNKED) Colleen Francis […]

  5. […] group, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). ADF is the selfsame group that gave rise to the Evergreen College hoax. The letter falsely asserted that video recording women using the restroom will become a supported […]

  6. […] group, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). ADF is the selfsame group that gave rise to the Evergreen College hoax. The letter falsely asserted that video recording women using the restroom will become a supported […]

  7. […] org; we’ll come back to them in a moment) the same organization that went to Fox News with lies about what happened at Evergreen College, is also an anti-abortion […]

  8. thank you very much for this! I just heard about this case today and was very scared because every source about it tells the same history. Again, thank you.

  9. […] may have had the very best of intentions, it seems that he was duped by anti-trans activists who regularly seek to get unwitting journalists to publish their hoaxes. I personally believe that Gallinger probably […]

  10. […] Media Reports Evergreen State College Theresa Rickman L.A. Peeping Tom – Trans Child Right Wings Gets it Wrong […]

  11. Joni Patel says:

    I give Cristan a lot of credit for actually doing the work of calling up and interviewing people, rather than just re-posting from newsfeeds or blogs.

    However, IMO an interview with Mr. Sprague does not establish what the facts are. He has no personal knowledge of what went on, and presumably everything he is saying comes from interviews with other people. But there is nothing in this post that tells us whom he interviewed, whether the interviewees all agreed with one another as to the facts, and, if not, whose version he believes and why. So it may be that the Colleen Francis story is a “hoax” or it may not be, but the unsourced assertions of Sprague cannot be what decide that question.

    One question regarding public policy and not specifically what happened in this incident: Wouldn’t it be the college’s position that Francis had every right to be in the locker area itself, during school hours, fully nude, and in front of minors, so long as any cisgender female student would be permitted? If so, I don’t see why there is all this focus by Mr. Sprague on her being in the sauna and being covered with a towel, since the college would not impose those restrictions on her or anyone else.

    • Cristan says:

      Thanks for your comment and after you’ve given me credit, I hate to poke holes in the logic of the argument you’ve presented, but here goes…
       
       
      You’re argument is based on the assumption that Sprague “has no personal knowledge of what went on.” That’s not correct. Sprague interviewed everyone involved and yes, read the reports made by the people who were part of the incident as well as those who conducted the police investigation.
       
       
      You assert…
       
       

      >IMO an interview with Mr. Sprague does not establish what the facts are.

       
       
      … and then provide the reasoning supporting your opinion:
       
       

      >He has no personal knowledge of what went on, and presumably everything he is saying comes from interviews with other people.

       
       
      In what other arena of investigative discourse is such an assertion seriously considered? Please name one. Courts? Police? Journalism? Parenting? The workplace? Is there any arena of human existence whereby we assert that because we were not a party of an incident, we then seriously assert that there are no facts to be known?
       
       
      No, that’s not how things work in life. To appeal to the idea that because Sprague wasn’t himself in the sauna, Sprague can’t know what went on is an absolutely preposterous assertion.
       
       
      What Fox reported is a hoax because it’s based on an ex-gay organization’s false statements. The assertions made by Fox and the assertions made by people whose knowledge of the incident is informed by Fox and/or the ex-gay organization’s letter is factually incorrect. In other words, they fell for a hoax.
       
      You asked:
       

      >Wouldn’t it be the college’s position that Francis had every right to be in the locker area itself, during school hours, fully nude, and in front of minors, so long as any cisgender female student would be permitted?

       
       
      No. This is a TERF and right-wing taking point. Please don’t be that gullible.

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