In celebration of Gender Justice League’s 10-year anniversary, this blog post is part of a series called Ten Years of Gender Justice, a commemoration of some of the key players throughout GJL’s history. Throughout this series, we’ll highlight a few of the collaborators, organizers, and activists who have worked within or alongside GJL to make strides in advancing gender justice in Washington State and beyond.
Between 2013-2019, David Ward successfully leveraged his knowledge and power as a lawyer with Legal Voice to back up GJL’s trans-led advocacy efforts, ultimately helping to secure several major policy wins for trans communities statewide, including insurance coverage of gender-affirming care. David now serves as an attorney at the Washington State Attorney General’s office, and continues to work to advance civil rights in Washington State.
Note: this interview was conducted in December 2022.
What was your role with Legal Voice, and how did that lead you to collaborate with Gender Justice League?
Legal Voice (LV) was originally founded as the Northwest Women’s Law Center in 1978, operating under this name until around 2009 before changing its name, in part due to the recognition of gender justice as more than exclusively a women’s issue. Gender issues cut across so many areas of the law and so many intersections, and LV was devoted to eliminating any forms of discrimination under the law based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
As a small nonprofit, LV focuses on policy and legislative work, as well as impact litigation. We could not represent everyone who had a discrimination case, but we chose cases that, if won, would help to change the law for a large number of people. Although LV was primarily founded as a women’s rights organization, over time they increasingly did a lot of work in LGBTQ rights and were involved in a lot of LGBTQ cases, including a case in the ‘90s brought by Margarethe Cammermeyer, who challenged the military’s ban on service for LGBTQ people. More recently, LV also helped strike down a law in Montana that prohibited same-sex sexual relations; was involved in Washington’s same-sex marriage case; and continues to work with state agencies to try to eliminate discrimination based on gender and gender stereotypes. LV had a lot of history doing LGBTQ rights work before I was hired in 2008 to explicitly focus on LGBTQ rights, as well as gender-based violence and family law work (both of which have intersections with LGBTQ rights).
I first started working alongside GJL in 2013. This was an important year in the trans rights movement because, at least in Washington State, so much energy had been devoted to winning marriage equality in 2012. Trans rights had not been given the focus they should have been given before marriage equality was won because so much of the advocacy work was focused on this one effort. After we won marriage equality, we were looking to what else we needed to do in Washington State to ensure equality for the LGBTQ community—and trans rights needed a lot of attention.
What did you work on and achieve together?
Health insurance was a huge issue. In 2013, you could not find a single insurance policy sold in the market in Washington State that provided coverage for gender-affirming care. We did have non-discrimination protections adopted earlier (in 2006) that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression; but in reality, there were so many problems with how the state, as well as private companies and employers, were treating LGBTQ people, and especially trans people.
There were good laws on the books, but not necessarily lived equality. It’s one thing to adopt a law, it’s another thing to have the law actually be applied and enforced. In early January of 2013, a lot of people who had been working on LGBTQ rights in Washington had a meeting—I think Danni [Askini] was there—and decided we needed to focus on trans rights and advancing the law and public policy in Washington. Interestingly, there were a lot of people in that meeting who had worked on marriage equality.
Over the next year or two, the number of people who kept showing up for those meetings dwindled, and it came down to a core group of people and organizations that were willing to devote the resources, time, and energy to advancing trans rights—rather than just LGB rights. We determined that healthcare and health insurance were huge issues for trans people, and that should be the primary focus.
As lawyers involved in the case, we worked on identifying every area of the law where trans people faced discrimination in healthcare. For one, health insurance in our country is obviously not single-payer. You’ve got a lot of different people who provide healthcare. We focused on how to attack healthcare’s discrimination against trans people, and the lack of coverage for gender-affirming care.
There were plans sold on the private market that anyone could buy, but no options that covered trans people. Medicaid/Apple Health (for people who were low income) had a rule (adopted in 2008) that stated they would not cover “gender reassignment” or “sex change” surgeries (the language at the time). We also had insurers who were privately funded through their employers, called ERISA plans, which were not regulated by the state, which was a more challenging area.
We needed to attack this issue on multiple fronts and start changing policies one by one. GJL took the lead on so many of these issues. I remember going to hearings before the Public Employee Benefits Board (PEBB) with GJL in 2014, and Danni [Askini] reached out to the head of the PEBB to ask why they didn’t cover gender-affirming care for state employees. These plans covered state employees and some people who worked for local governments, and they did not cover gender-affirming care at all. The head of the PEBB said, “well, you can come and tell us why we should change it.” So, we started showing up at every PEBB meeting in Olympia—which was boring, unexciting work. Danni [Askini] and other folks from GJL showed up and began telling stories, and within a few months, we were able to get the PEBB to change their policies to cover gender-affirming care in their healthcare plans. That was a major victory.
That same year, during pride month of 2014, we got the Insurance Commissioner of the state of Washington to issue guidance to private insurers around covering care for trans people—specifically stating that, if they wouldn’t cover care for trans people that would be covered for cis people, they were violating Washington law. For example, private insurance would cover mastectomies for people with breast cancer, but they would not cover mastectomies for people who needed it due to gender dysphoria—and that’s discrimination. This guidance was an extremely important signal to insurance companies in Washington that they could not have these broad transgender exclusions in their healthcare policies (which were extremely common). A lot of health insurance policies sold in the state of Washington explicitly stated they would not cover anything that was related to gender transition or transition-related care. GJL was extremely important in advocating for those changes to eliminate those exclusions.
[Changing] Apple Health was a long process. Apple Health actually did have a rule on the books saying they would not cover transition-related care. I still remember so many meetings with GJL and Lisa Brodoff, a professor at Seattle University School of Law, who had been working on these kinds of cases. We would meet with the people from our Medicaid program and say, “why isn’t Medicaid covering this? This rule is discriminatory, and it has to change.” As a result of those meetings and a petition filed by Lisa Brodoff, we managed to get rules made that eliminated the denial of coverage for any kind of transition-related care. It was a success—but it was not a perfect rule. It took many years after that to try to get the Washington State Health Care Authority to move towards covering what was really needed.
A lot of people think of trans healthcare needs as limited to hormones and bottom surgery—they don’t recognize that healthcare for trans people is so much more than that. Trans people need access to a whole range of gender-affirming care and services, depending on what each person needs to address their gender dysphoria. Even after they changed the rule to not deny care out of hand, we had to fight for years to include things like facial feminization and chest reconstruction surgeries for trans women. They would say “we don’t cover breast augmentation for women, generally,” but they did, in fact, cover it in some instances, and if it were necessary for somebody to be able to address a medically necessary condition, they would have to cover chest reconstruction surgery for trans women. They would have to cover things like tracheal shaves, too, because that’s something that is not merely cosmetic. That was what we fought over and over again: the idea of cosmetic surgery.
We fought a huge number of battles over healthcare coverage, and GJL was always there. GJL was always so good about showing up, advocating strongly, and showing decision-makers what was at stake.
What was your role in this advocacy work?
My role was to provide legal support, put things into legal language, and stand behind folks and say “if you don’t change these policies, you’re going to get sued, so maybe you should just change them.” That was usually a very effective strategy.
I’m a cisgender gay man. The people who had to really persuade the decision-makers were the people directly affected by these policies, i.e. trans people. GJL brought people actually impacted by the discriminatory policies to these hearings and articulated the real lived experiences that people suffered from by such discrimination. It helps to have a lawyer in the room, but it’s more important to have people who are directly affected by discrimination appear at these kinds of hearings—and these hearings are often not the most accessible. Who knows to show up in Olympia for a hearing before the Public Employee Benefits Board? You don’t know that unless you’re an advocacy organization that’s savvy about how policy is made and how to affect things. Who knows how you change the law? You have to know how to reach and get meetings with legislators, and you have to know who makes the decisions and how to change them. That’s where GJL brought our advocacy for trans rights in Washington to a new level that made such an enormous difference—and I’m not even getting into the stories about the bathroom bills, which came a little bit later.
Were you also involved in the fight against bathroom bills?
For some context: in 2006, Washington State finally adopted a law that prohibited discrimination against people based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. For years, that law was interpreted by the state to mean that you cannot, for instance, say that a trans person has to use the bathroom that was designated for use by the sex that they were assigned at birth, but rather that they should be able to use bathrooms, locker rooms, and other sex-segregated public accommodations based on their gender identity. In 2015, the Washington State Human Rights Commission finally adopted a formal rule that said you cannot ask people to use bathrooms, locker rooms, or sex-segregated facilities inconsistent with their gender identity, regardless of the sex someone is assigned at birth. This should have been noncontroversial because it had actually been the law in Washington for many years (since 2006).
However, in 2016, after this rule came out, the legislators who saw it—who were uniformly Republican—freaked out. They introduced six bills in the 2016 legislative session in Washington that aimed to repeal the rules that had been issued, try to prohibit trans people from using gender and sex-specific facilities, and/or to say that people must use the facility consistent with their assigned sex at birth. We had to fight these.
This was one of the first efforts in the state where opponents of equality tried to roll back the law and say “trans people don’t exist” or “we don’t recognize your right to use facilities consistent with your gender identity.” We had to defeat six bills, and it was a huge fight. The State Senate at the time was controlled by Republicans. The first vote was in the State Senate, and we were able to defeat that bill by one vote. GJL played a big role in working with the senators, including the Republican senators, who we thought were persuadable.
Winning that vote was a big deal. When we defeated that bill, it took a lot of air out of the tires of the people who were trying to push for discrimination—but it did not stop them. In fact, we’re seeing these same efforts to target trans people around the country now.
After 2016, our opponents decided they were going to do an initiative. If you can get enough signatures on a petition, you can put a measure on the ballot for voters to decide. In 2016, they started gathering signatures to try to put a ballot measure, Initiative-1515, before the voters in Washington to decide whether trans people could use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.
We had to fight this on every front. We had to immediately form a group to oppose I-1515, and we called it Washington Won’t Discriminate, which GJL was a part of. For anyone working on LGBTQ rights in WA State in 2016, that’s where all your energy went. I worked every day for the first six months of that year because we had to fight this. Everyone was working every day to stop this. We could not lose.
Ultimately, our opponents were not able to get enough signatures to put I-1515 on the ballot. There was a big sigh of relief that we won—but we knew the people on the other side weren’t going to stop. The following year, in 2017, our opponents started gathering signatures to try to put this same measure on the ballot again (as I-1552). Again, we all organized to encourage people not to sign this petition, using the slogan “Decline to Sign.”
We were very worried that they might actually get it on the ballot this time because they had more time that year to get signatures. Early in July, on the last day that you could submit signatures, we all went down to the Washington State Secretary of State’s office in Olympia to see if they were going to submit them. At 3 pm on the last day, we were told they canceled their appointment because they didn’t have enough signatures. We won again. Tacoma Pride was that same day, so we all went to Tacoma Pride to celebrate defeating them two years in a row.
Since then, they haven’t tried it again. One of the things that’s nice about living in Washington State is that we’ve [already] fought these battles and won—we’re not getting targeted like some other states are right now. You see what’s happening in Arkansas, Texas, and Florida. In Texas, they’re trying to get child welfare workers to go after parents of trans kids, saying they’re committing child abuse. In Arkansas, they’re facing state laws that say trans minors can’t get gender-affirming care of any sort. Other states are banning trans kids from participating in sports that align with their gender identity. We haven’t had to fight those battles in Washington yet—knock on wood—I think because we did such a strong job of turning those folks back years ago.
Who knows if we’re going to see it again, but we have to be ready. The history of this movement is two steps forward, one step back. You’re always waiting to see if somebody is going to come up with another way to attack you. The opponents are very good at finding issues where they think they can win. We’ve managed to defeat all of them in Washington State, and GJL has played a big role in making sure that we have a state that has good laws on the books.
What felt challenging for you in this work?
Especially when we began organizing, I think if you had surveyed most folks in the general population, only a fairly small percentage of people even thought they knew somebody who was trans. The LGB rights movement had the same challenge 40 years ago. It’s easy to discriminate against somebody who you don’t know.
We win our rights when people know who we are; when they know that we are people; that we exist; and that we might be family members, neighbors, and people they work with. I think today we’d find a higher percentage of people who think they know somebody who’s trans, non-binary, or gender non-conforming.
The danger we have now is that there’s a really well-organized opposition, and they keep trying to find wedge issues, like sports or youth. I think the way we win is by being ourselves, coming out, and advocating—but it’s dangerous to do that, too.
What I always loved about GJL was the fearlessness. I know Danni [Askini] has faced so many threats and so much personal hatred directed at them because of this work. It really takes a toll to have to face that. It does seem like, in order to advance and protect our rights, somebody has to be the face of the movement. We’re not a movement that just has one face, obviously, but it’s important for people to feel that we have leadership and that somebody is willing to be out there, be public, and risk the blowback, threats, and the ugliness of our opponents. I think that happens in just about every civil rights movement. GJL has done that for many years.
What do you think we should be preparing for in Washington State when it comes to trans advocacy and fighting anti-trans bills?
On the local level, there are anti-trans things happening in school districts; efforts to censor books at local libraries; and all over the country, including Washington State, we’re seeing attacks on drag queens and drag shows. Trans people are everywhere, and especially in smaller communities, people need our support.
It was difficult during the Trump years, for example, with the trans military ban. There are still ongoing efforts in the federal courts to try to say that federal law does not ban discrimination against trans people in healthcare. That’s harder to address from a local level, but I think even in the best of states, we still have to be always on the ground, not letting discrimination go unchallenged. Discrimination still happens, even in Seattle. There is still a lot of hate we have to face.
I still remember trying to get a law passed in the state legislature in 2019 to make the trans panic defense not valid in criminal cases. The measure, which passed in 2020, is named after Nikki Kuhnhausen, a trans woman who was killed in Vancouver, WA in 2019 by a man who justified her murder with a trans panic defense.
We’re a big state—there are lots of parts of the state where trans people are still isolated and need help and support. Trans people still face much higher levels of discrimination than a lot of other people who are protected by civil rights laws. Even though we have good state laws on the books, this does not mean discrimination is over. We still have to enforce the laws and push back anytime somebody tries to violate them.
We have to always be vigilant. There’s still so much work to do for trans people who are incarcerated and survivors of gender-based violence, and around name changes and healthcare. Even with the best of laws, we still need to keep moving forward to address discrimination—because it’s not over.
You’ve highlighted the disconnect between having anti-discrimination laws on the books, and actually ending discrimination. What do you think is the solution there?
The solution is multipronged. It’s being visible. It’s being vocal when discrimination occurs. It’s helping people feel supported when they face discrimination so that they can stand up for themselves or have a legal organization, or somebody else, seek remedies on their behalf. It’s teaching people to not stand by silently when they witness discrimination. It’s so many things.
Those who oppose your rights will find different ways to attack you. I think every civil rights organization would say they’d like to put themselves out of business because there’s no longer a need for them—but that’s not what we’ve seen. I think we do need to always have advocacy organizations to defend the gains we’ve made, and to keep pushing forward for full, lived equality.
You’ve been part of so many important wins in the past 10 years. What do you want to see GJL do in the next 10 years?
I would like to see GJL continue the work they’ve been doing, be present in Olympia for our state legislature policymaking, and have a presence around the state for people who need help and advocacy.
Something I’ve always loved about GJL is that it’s fierce, but it also has a sense of humor. GJL does advocacy in a way that helps draw a lot of people in. GJL has also often brought a sense of joy and celebration around who we are. That’s why Trans Pride is important, too. It’s not just about advocating in the legislature or the city councils, it’s also about celebrating and affirming who we are, and giving people a lot of reasons to feel excited about the possibilities that we have. I’d like people to know that GJL has been there, they have done the work, they are inclusive, they are fighters, and they’re also fun. They are one of my favorite advocacy organizations in the state.
This reminds me of the quote by Harvey Milk: “you have to give them hope.” This work can feel so daunting. You hear about trans people, trans kids feeling like they have to move from where they are [to access support and care]. We can’t have that happen here. We do have neighboring states, like Idaho, with some really bad laws and policies, so we have to serve as a place that’s welcoming for people who need to leave hostile places. There’s so much work to do still.
Any closing thoughts?
Almost every other year, we had to organize and fight, and we never lost. There were six major ballot measures that we had to fight and win in the state between 2006 and 2017—that’s eleven years. In 2006, we had to fight an initiative to repeal an anti-discrimination law, and do that again in 2007. In 2009, we had to actually win something with the voters to get a domestic partnership law in Washington, which we won (referendum 71). In 2012, we had to win a referendum on the ballot for marriage equality (referendum 74). In 2016, we had to fight off a ballot measure to take away rights for trans people (I-1515), and had to do the same thing the next year (I-1552). Since 2017, we haven’t had to fight as many battles, although in 2020, there was a referendum on sex education (referendum 90), which we still won. We always won.
We didn’t do it perfectly: if you know the stories, there’s a lot of history of battling about who does what. We are pretty good about keeping those fights within our community. [As a movement] we have not always been good at having leadership that reflects the people most affected by the issues. Another thing I appreciate about GJL is that it’s a by-and-for, trans leadership organization; although again, there’s work that can be done towards cultivating more leadership that is not white.
We’ve done a really good job over so many years working as a community. GJL has been an important part of that. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished in this state, and I hope it continues. I’m relieved.
It’s now been five years since we had to fight for our rights at the ballot box or to stop a bad ballot measure. We’re at a good place in Washington right now. I feel hopeful that we’re not going to have to fight these big battles in the legislature this year, and that we can actually be working to advance the law, while also doing defense. That’s why we need advocacy organizations, even when things look like they’re going well.