The author of a Republican bill aimed at regulating transgender students' school bathroom use worked closely with the president of a conservative Christian group to craft the legislation, according to emails obtained through an open records request.
The emails show that Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, had several meetings and conversations about the proposal with Wisconsin Family Action president Julaine Appling, dating back to last spring. Appling worked closely with Kremer on crafting the language of the bill, and offered advice on how to deal with a Republican senator who appeared to oppose the measure.
FAIR Wisconsin, an LGBT civil rights organization, has said defeating the bill is its number one priority this legislative session. But Appling said last week pushing the proposal is a "top-drawer priority" for the group.
"It's certainly important for our organization, as a standard bearer, to be involved in this issue," Appling said in an interview last week.
Appling said she doesn't remember the details of how she and Kremer started working together on the legislation, but added that helping lawmakers craft bills is a key role for organizations like hers, be they liberal or conservative.
Kremer's bill, circulated for cosponsorship earlier this month, would require school boards to designate school restrooms and locker rooms for use by one gender exclusively. In other words, transgender students would be not be allowed to use the facilities that correspond with their gender identity.
The bill would require a school board to provide "reasonable accommodations" for a transgender student to use a single-occupancy changing room or restroom.
Both Kremer and Appling argue the proposal isn't designed to be discriminatory. Appling said the bill is necessary to ensure the privacy of all students is a priority, rather than giving "special protections and special opportunities to a very select few." She said it respects the privacy rights of all students in an even-handed way.
Opponents of the bill have argued it singles out transgender students by requiring them to use a single-occupancy facility if they don't identify with their biological gender.
Democrats have introduced their own bill in response, which would require the state Department of Public Instruction to develop a model policy regarding transgender students and require each school board in the state to adopt its own policy.
"You don't have to run a flag up the pole saying, 'Hey, I'm going to go use the single-occupancy restroom,'" Appling said. "Students can just very quietly do that. How does that bring more opprobrium on them?"
Both Appling and Kremer deem the bill necessary as a way to fight a perceived slippery slope toward relaxing rules related to the use of bathrooms and changing facilities. Appling said too many schools are "buying into the lie" that concessions must be made for students who don't identify with their biological gender. That's a push coming from the federal government, she said.
Kremer is concerned if schools start allowing transgender students to use the bathroom corresponding to their identity, the practice will become acceptable in other public areas, too.
"It starts in the schools and we start thinking 'this is OK and normal and it’s fine to do this,' but what about the rest of the population that isn’t comfortable with this?" Kremer asked.
But Kremer is having a hard time drumming up the support he'll need to bring the bill before both chambers of the Legislature. And he acknowledges it will be a challenge to get groups like the Wisconsin Association of School Boards to support his efforts.
He's in talks with Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, who leads the Assembly education committee, about scheduling a committee hearing for the bill in late October or early November.
It's a different story in the Senate, where Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, heads the Senate Committee on Education.
"I don’t think Sen. Olsen wants to talk about it. I'll be blunt. I don’t know where it’s going to go on the Senate side yet. He wasn’t even interested in looking at any information I've provided yet," Kremer said.
Kremer emailed Appling the day he introduced the bill to notify her of the Senate roadblock, according to emails provided in an open records request.
"I say we let senator Olsen be the bad guy," Appling emailed.
"Fine by me. It will be released today," Kremer wrote back.
Later that day, Appling wrote to Kremer: "Thanks! Can I make you a hero on this??? :)" He replied, "I only pray it gets done."
Appling said no additional context is required to understand the exchange.
"We love to make the people who want to do the right thing heroes," Appling said. "And I don’t try to make anybody a bad guy, but when they don’t do something that should be done — and it’s pretty common sense and pretty reasonable and timely, and it’s stopped — I don’t make them the bad guy, they just become an obstacle."
Olsen, reached by phone, said he was surprised to hear Kremer had talked about him in those terms.
"I haven't even seen it," he said, adding that he won't decide whether or not a bill gets a hearing before he's seen it.
Asked about being made the "bad guy," Olsen said it sounds like Kremer knows the bill isn't going anywhere and is looking to make him the fall guy.
Kremer said he's willing to talk with members of the LGBT community about the bill, but he hasn't had those discussions yet. Opponents of his bill say it's telling that no stakeholders in that community were consulted on the drafting of the legislation.
"This is an ugly glimpse into the inner workings and the minds of the right-wing cabal currently writing the laws in this state. Discriminating against people different from you is lauded as heroic and refusing to kowtow to their hate mongering makes you the enemy," said Mike Browne, deputy director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now. "That playing bathroom monitor counts as lawmaking is a sad commentary on how Gov. Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature are running Wisconsin."
But Kremer said his bill isn't meant to single anyone out or discriminate against anyone. He's talking about everyone, he said — something he doesn't see happening among his opposition.
"When the transgender community starts talking about this bill, all they talk about is 'me, me, me,' 'us, us, us,' and they never talk about the other students," Kremer said.
He said he knows there are some lawmakers on his side of the aisle who don't want to have this conversation, but he believes it's a necessary one. He tries to remind himself, he said, that it's a "small group of loud individuals" hammering him over the bill.
Kremer said he does believe there are people who truly don't identify with their biological gender, but he thinks there are also some people who just want to make a statement and "cause a ruckus."
He said he's willing to listen to anyone in order to "make this actually work."
Brian Juchems, senior director of education and policy at the Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools, told the Cap Times earlier this month that as he works with schools around the state, the number one issue that comes up is how to support and include transgender students.