Last week The Seattle Times reported that chef John Howie (Seastar, Beardslee Public House) had signed a petition for and donated $1,000 to Washington anti-transgender bathroom group Just Want Privacy. The group, accused of using misleading tactics to gather signatures to restrict bathroom and locker room access for transgender people, failed to get its Initiative 1515 on the fall ballot.
In the Times' story, Howie defended his anti-transgender bathroom stance with inflammatory (and widely debunked) lines like, "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." He also trotted out the well-worn trope, Won't somebody please think of the children?
You can get a sense of how strong and swift the backlash must have been by how quickly and contritely Howie apologized — by the next day, the chef was on camera asking forgiveness for his support of the group.
"I realize that my concerns about the proposed law were based on fear, not facts," Howie said in the video, posted to his Facebook page. "And now I have a better understanding of that, and I would never support the proposed law, not now or in the future."
What's more surprising in this day and age: that a big-name chef in progressive Seattle would support a discriminatory group in the first place, or that when he faced pushback the chef would make a public apology that felt genuine? All too often, these apologies put the blame elsewhere — "Sorry if you were offended" — which is decidedly not an evasion Howie made.
Over the phone, the Howie recounted to Eater the situation that led to his signing of the petition in the first place, an echo of other people's experiences in which the transphobic petition was apparently sold as a false bill of goods: "It was someone standing outside a game, I believe, holding up a sign saying 'Keep men out of women's bathrooms.' Who's not against that? It seemed so straightforward — it clearly wasn't." He said he wasn't diligent enough to look deeply into everything Just Want Privacy was trying to accomplish.
"I have so much more empathy and sympathy for what they have to go through."
Howie said he has since learned a lot from friends and colleagues as well as new forces in his life. "I've spent a couple hours in the last day wth two parents of transgender children, and it's really changed how I look at things and who I am. Not that I held anything against them before but I have so much more empathy and sympathy for what they have to go through." He referenced the suicide-attempt rate of transgender people, staggeringly high compared to the national average, even in studies that came well before the recent spate of anti-transgender bathroom laws like North Carolina's.
The restaurateur, who is overseeing CenturyLink Field's revamped concessions program, also expressed a religious belief in inclusiveness. "It's sad that people are using Christianity or faith in Jesus Christ in a way he would never personally agree to. It just doesn't fit with who God and Jesus is in my mind. He loves people, he loves all people, and would embrace and wrap his arms around somebody far sooner than he would condemn someone." This statement is similar to one that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson gave the media when asked why he decided not to get married in North Carolina.
The idea that trans people only want to use opposite-sex bathrooms to prey on children is a red herring; that would still be illegal, it's simply not something that has been proven to happen. Howie said, "If someone is going to be a pedophile, an individual who's going into a bathroom to harm someone, they're going to do it whether or not they use some guise to go into that bathroom. After meeting with the people I met with yesterday, they said they would encourage anybody to call the police on someone who is doing something like that, but that's not what a transgender person is doing when they go into a bathroom."
"I believe that something positive will come of this."
As far as making things right, Howie said he has always supported the LGBTQ community and plans to make a point to do more for transgender groups, asking allies to help him vet worthwhile organizations. He also said he told filmmaker Vlada Knowlton he'd be more than happy to help her raise funds for her in-development documentary about the challenges families go through when trying to understand that they have a transgender child and trying to make that child feel accepted in society. "I believe this happened for a reason and I believe that something positive will come of this," Howie said.