August 22, 2018 at 9:43 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Massachusetts is now ground zero in fight for trans rights

Massachusetts voters will decide whether to repeal the state’s transgender non-discrimination law. (Photo by Estrogin via Creative Commons)

Massachusetts will be ground zero in the fight for transgender rights on Election Day when state voters will decide whether to approve or reject a referendum aimed at compromising public bathroom access for transgender people.

The referendum, Question 3, seeks to repeal an update to the state’s non-discrimination law approved by the Massachusetts Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker in 2015 barring discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations, including hotels, restaurants as well as public restrooms.

Should voters decide to repeal the law with a majority vote of “no” on the referendum, transgender people would still have recourse under state law if they faced discrimination in employment, housing and education, but not if they’re turned away in bathrooms or other public accommodations in Massachusetts.

David Topping, field director for Yes on 3, said the campaign is “working every day” to ensure Massachusetts voters know what’s at stake for transgender people if the referendum fails.

“It means transgender people can be transgender at home, they can be transgender at work, they can be transgender at school, but they can’t go out in public and be transgender,” Topping said.

Topping said Yes on 3 is “building a robust campaign” that includes staffers in major cities, such as Boston and Worcester. In terms of finances, Topping was reluctant to disclose goals, but said the campaign has a more than $1 million budget and reserved $1 million in airtime for TV ads throughout Massachusetts.

The stakes are high not just for transgender people in Massachusetts. The referendum marks the first time a transgender non-discrimination measure will come before voters at a statewide level. The results will likely impact the national discussion on such protections.

Kasey Suffredini, president of strategy at Freedom for All Americans, said the coalition seeking to uphold the law recognizes the outcome of the vote will have bearing outside Massachusetts.

“It’s a fight of tremendous local significance because it impacts the very basic ability of transgender people to just about their daily lives in public,” Suffredini said. “It also has national significance because it is the first statewide vote on transgender non-discrimination protections in our country’s history, and the anti-transgender activist who put this question on the ballot have said if they are successful in Massachusetts, they will work to roll back LGBT protections across the country.”

The question was placed on the ballot as a result of anti-trans groups gathering enough signatures for a voter-initiated referendum. In 2016, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Francis Galvin HYPERLINK “http://www.washingtonblade.com/2016/10/12/ballot-measure-seeking-to-overturn-mass-trans-law-certified-for-2018/”certified opponents of the law submitted 34,231 qualified signatures to out the measure up for a vote, which is slightly more than the 32,375 names needed.

The referendum will be the latest in a series of votes across the United States in recent years on transgender access to restrooms and public accommodations.

In 2015, Houston voters rejected by a wide margin the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which would have banned discrimination against LGBT people and other groups in a range of areas, including employment, housing and public accommodations, after opponents inflamed fears about transgender people using the restroom, falsely suggesting the measure would enable child molestation.

Things changed this year. In Anchorage, Alaska, voters upheld a portion of the city ordinance barring discrimination against transgender people in bathrooms and public accommodations by a 52-47 margin. The turnabout in this referendum three years after the Houston defeat was credited to transgender people in the city bringing their personal stories to the forefront.

Topping was in Houston for the HERO campaign in 2015 in the last two weeks before Election Day. Recalling the disappointment when the results came in, Topping added the national movement has learned much since that time.

“What we’ve learned from Houston and Anchorage is that when you talk to voters directly about what our opposition is saying, we can bring them back,” Topping said. “What we do is we talk to voters at the door, over the phone, and explain to them why this fight is so important and help them process any concerns that they may have about the law, whether it’s about safety, whether it’s about what it means to be transgender or just in general what the law is actually.”

Suffredini said Yes on 3 is “absolutely” applying lessons from earlier battles at the ballot over transgender rights and highlighting the stories of transgender people because there’s “no better way to destroy myths and stereotypes.”

“The core of our efforts is elevating transgender voices and telling transgender stories so that voters can actually see through the misleading information that our opponents put out about who transgender people are, what non-discrimination protections do and see that we are not the same as everybody else, but that protecting us from discrimination really doesn’t impact the welfare of anybody else,” Suffredini said.

The final vote on the referendum could be a nail-biter. A HYPERLINK “http://www.wbur.org/news/2018/05/31/massachusetts-transgender-law-ballot-poll”poll from WBUR radio in May found a slim majority of Massachusetts voters — 52 percent — want to uphold the anti-discrimination law, while 38 percent would vote to repeal it.

Despite those numbers, Topping expressed confidence Massachusetts voters will affirm transgender rights at the ballot in November.

“I am confident that Massachusetts voters will vote yes this year, but we can’t take that for granted,” Topping said. “We have a staff building across the state, having volunteer actions every single day when we’re talking to voters and where we really making sure that we’re discussing this campaign and talking to people about what it means to be transgender.”

That win, Topping said, will send a signal throughout the rest of the country that voters will reject attempts to undermine transgender rights whenever they’re put up for a vote at the ballot.

“I think that, hopefully, Massachusetts can set an example to the rest of the country that when these protections go the ballot, we will win every single time no matter where we are,” Topping said.

The No on 3 campaign didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment for this article on why repeal of the transgender non-discrimination law is necessary.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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