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An initiative requiring people to use public restrooms and locker rooms according to the gender designated on their birth certificate fell far short of the support needed to qualify for the November general election.

Supporters of Initiative 183, dubbed the “Montana Locker Room Privacy Act” by organizers, appear to have mustered fewer than 10,000 of the 25,468 signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot. Sponsors of citizen initiatives had until June 20 to finish gathering signatures and submit them to county elections offices, which then have until July 20 to verify the signatures and forward them on to Montana’s Secretary of State Office.

The initiative's failure to qualify was hailed as a victory by proponents of gender diversity, who in recent years have battled for non-discrimination ordinances (NDOs) in Montana’s biggest cities. The NDO failed in Montana's largest city, Billings, largely because of the effort of Montana Family Foundation, which sponsored Initiative 183.

Montana Family Foundation CEO Jeff Laszloffy declined to discuss the initiative with The Billings Gazette.

A law similar to the initiative failed in the 2017 Montana Legislature, as well.

“Today we are celebrating," said Shawn Reagor, Free and Fair Coalition vice-chair. "Our commitment to trans and non-binary Montanans is unwavering, and we will continue showing up to defend against attacks on the dignity and privacy of our family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. This proposed initiative has now failed to garner enough support to qualify for the ballot, and it failed to get out of committee in the 2017 Legislature because even the most conservative members of that body understood the policy is bad for Montana's economy, communities and schools. Montanans made it clear: they will not allow this policy to capitalize on the fears and uncertainties of voters and punish Montana’s transgender and non-binary community.”

Friday, the Secretary of State’s statewide tally for Initiative 183 totaled just 8,079. Elections officials for six of Montana’s largest counties — representing more than half of Montana’s electorate — told Lee Montana newspapers they had submitted all but a few of their signatures.

The initiative sparked a fierce civil rights debate. Laszloffy has suggested that allowing transgender students into locker rooms and bathrooms of their choice threatened "the privacy and dignity" of children who weren’t transgender.

"All of this becomes extremely problematic for policy makers," Laszloffy said in a May opinion column in The Billings Gazette. "What do you do with an anatomical boy who identifies as a girl and demands access to the girls’ locker room? What’s fair? Should hundreds of girls be forced to sacrifice their privacy and dignity to accommodate a single student?"

Opponents countered that the Montana Family Foundation's concerns were absurd and that the initiative threatened the civil rights of transgender people.

Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the Montana American Civil Liberties Union, said last fall that the initiative, if passed, would "banish transgender Montanans from full and equal participation in public life." The ACLU had sued over the ballot language originally approved for the initiative.

The ACLU had argued the initiative language for I-183 failed to state what it would cost the government to comply with the new bathroom rules. Opponents also argued that state and local governments would be on the hook for mental health costs.

The bathroom debate has been going on for a few years now.

In 2015, Montana High School Association floated a policy allowing Montana teens who identified as a gender other than the one on their birth certificate to compete in girls’ events for their identified sex. There wasn’t enough support among member schools for the proposal, which was dropped.

That same year Montana’s universities were addressing transgender rights under Title IX — the federal rule that requires all schools receiving federal funding not to discriminate based on sex. Montana State University Billings had that year planned for 11-single-stall bathrooms designated as inclusive to accommodate transgender students.

In 2016, President Barack Obama’s administration issued a guidance for public schools to allow students to use the bathroom or locker room that aligned with the gender with which the student identified. Essentially, public schools were advised to apply Title IX to transgender students, though schools weren't obligated to comply.

The Obama guidance was challenged in court by several states including Montana, where the suit pitted Attorney General Tim Fox against then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau. The lawsuit put Obama's guidance on hold in the fall of 2016. Months later, President Donald Trump reversed the former president's action.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.