Transgender Rights Faces Its Biggest Test—In Massachusetts
Massachusetts may have a lauded history on gay rights, but polls show a tough campaign for trans equality activists as they fight to preserve anti-discrimination protections there.
In theory, an anti-transgender ballot measure shouldn’t stand a chance in a state like Massachusetts.
It was, after all, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004. But it took Massachusetts until 2016 to pass full non-discrimination protections for transgender people—by which point nearly 20 other states had already done the same. LGBT rights, it seems, do not always advance in lockstep.
And now, just two years after the state’s Republican governor Charlie Baker signed a transgender non-discrimination bill into law, there is already an effort underway to get it repealed: Given the progress of a signature campaign, it is “very likely,” as WBUR reported, that the November 2018 ballot will ask voters whether or not they “approve” of the newly-added public accommodation protections for transgender people.
Polling so far indicates that a substantial—and perhaps surprising—fraction of Massachusetts voters would indeed be willing to roll back those protections.
As Metro US recently reported, two polls suggest that nearly 40 percent of the state’s population would vote to scrap the law: A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll found that found 37 percent of a sample of 500 voters would repeal it, and a WBUR poll Found that 38 percent would do the same.
The percentages of voters who approved of the law were higher—49 percent and 52 percent respectively—but not high enough to put transgender advocates at ease.
“While we have confidence in how fair-minded people in Massachusetts are, we’ve always known that we were going to work for and earn every vote,” Kasey Suffredini, co-chair of Freedom for All Massachusetts and the former executive director of MassEquality told The Daily Beast.
From Suffredini’s perspective, the situation could be much worse: A ballot measure like this could have cropped up in a state with more widespread hostility toward toward transgender rights.
“[The polling] is actually higher than we would see in many other places so, in some ways, if we have to have a historic statewide vote on the dignity and humanity of transgender people, Massachusetts is the place where we’d want to do it,” he told The Daily Beast.
The ballot measure will in fact make history this November, marking the first time that an entire state has voted directly on the question of transgender rights.
City-level votes on transgender issues have had differing outcomes thus far: In April, Anchorage voters narrowly defeated an anti-transgender measure which would have restricted restroom use by “original birth certificate.” But in 2015, Houston voters repealed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, after an anti-transgender campaign spread the unsubstantiated myth that HERO allowed men to use women’s restrooms.
And in a country where only 30 percent of people report knowing an actual transgender person, that myth still holds sway over voters—even in Massachusetts, where it is being deployed against the non-discrimination law.
“There are still so many people that don’t know any transgender people, and don’t know very much about what it means to be transgender,” Suffredini told The Daily Beast.”Our opponents are very good of taking advantage of that lack of information—and misleading voters into thinking things about transgender people that are not true, and that could lead them to be afraid of non-discrimination protections.”
But if the recent vote in Anchorage or the March passage of a transgender rights bill in New Hampshire—another state in the Northeast with a Republican governor—are any indication, that myth may be losing steam rapidly enough to sink a measure like the probable ballot question in Massachusetts.
A minority of Americans know a transgender person, but that number is on the rise, And as it climbs, more people realize that non-discrimination protections are not a danger.
“I think it can be true that, on the one hand, [anti-transgender] talking points are probably as effective as they’ve ever been but the size of the population they’re able to impact is increasingly shrinking,” Suffredini told The Daily Beast. “Because the more people become familiar with who transgender people are, the less susceptible they are to those messages.”
Given Suffredini’s long history in Massachusetts, he is not as surprised as the national media that a ballot measure like this one would crop up in the state. Massachusetts may have been a leader on sexual orientation protections, he says, but “certainly with to transgender issues, they were much slower to come to the conversation.”
“Massachusetts has a reputation for being this very liberal, very blue state but, even for Democrats there’s a spectrum of how progressive [they] are,” said Suffredini.
Although the state might not quite live up to its reputation, the fact of its reputation sill matters.
As Politico reported in March, opponents of the non-discrimination law would see a victory in a liberal state like Massachusetts as a green light to roll back protections elsewhere—and LGBT advocates would have to reckon even more soberly with the ever-increasing lag time between marriage equality and transgender equality.
“I think this is another Prop 8 moment,” Suffredini told The Daily Beast, referring to the 2008 ballot proposition in California which made same-sex marriage illegal.
That 2008 defeat—often seen as a conspicuous example of liberal complacency around LGBT issues in a predominantly blue state—emboldened anti-LGBT advocates in their fight against same-sex marriage: Maine voter, for example, voted to repeal same-sex marriage in 2009.
A defeat for transgender rights in Massachusetts would be crushing in exactly the same respect, fueling the groups that look for opportunities to discriminate against transgender people—or to roll back pre-existing protections.
That’s why LGBT advocates are so closely watching this battle so closely: Polling data shows that public opinion has been moving in favor of transgender rights in recent years, but there have been very few opportunities so far for that to be demonstrated in the voting booth. This will be the biggest test to date.
As Human Rights Campaign national press secretary Sarah McBride told Boston.com, “The eyes of the nation, in many ways, will be on Massachusetts this November.”
Indeed, the fact that an anti-transgender ballot measure would be unexpected in Massachusetts is exactly why LGBT advocates hope people pay more attention to it.