Mass Statehouse

The Massachusetts Statehouse dome.

BOSTON — As Election Day approaches, supporters and opponents of Question 3 — an initiative to undo Massachusetts’s law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in public places — have stepped up their debate over the rights of transgender people.

The estimated 29,900 transgender people in Massachusetts gained legal protection in housing, education, employment and credit and from hate crimes in 2011, when former Gov. Deval Patrick signed “An Act Relative to Gender Identity” into law.

A 2016 law, signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, extended the protection for transgender people to places of public accommodation, including hotels, restaurants, museums, homeless shelters and all other places providing services. Under the law, these venues can no longer refuse admission or treatment to transgender people.

The ballot committee, Keep Massachusetts Safe, has led the efforts to repeal the law and collected 34,231 certified signatures to put its repeal initiative on the ballot. A yes vote would keep the law in place, and a no vote would repeal it.

Opponents of the law dubbed it “the bathroom law,” saying such protection will allow men to gain access into women’s bathrooms and locker rooms, and, claiming to be transgender, go unpunished.

Andrew Beckwith, the president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a Christian conservative organization, said the law is easily “abused or exploited by people with wrong intentions and therefore puts the safety of especially women and children’s safety in risk, and should be repealed to protect the safety of all Commonwealth citizens.”

“The way that this law was designed, the definition of gender identity is very vague and broad. It only requires the identity to be sincerely held, but who can police that in the moment?” Beckwith said.

But people supporting the “Yes on 3” campaign said this bill is more than a “bathroom bill” or a “locker room bill.”

“It’s any place where people serve the public. You are not supposed to be able to discriminate against people just because your perception of who they are doesn’t agree with some feelings you have,” said Joe Ordog, Attleboro PFLAG’s chapter president, to listeners of Attleboro’s WARA-AM “Equality Time.”

The radio show has been airing every Friday at 5 p.m. for more than a month. Laurie Sawyer, who works at a children’s hospital in Rhode Island, co-hosts the show with Carissa Johnstone, a transgender woman and engineer from North Attleboro.

Both Ordog and Sawyer noted that there had been zero uptick in public safety issues since the anti-discrimination bill was passed in 2016, and that places for medical treatment are also public accommodations.

“Is an ambulance going to say we can’t pick you up even though you are bleeding?” asked Ordog.

“Who would take some people’s rights away based on a hunch or fear? I’m fond of saying that where there is fear, there is no faith,” said Johnstone.

Freedom for All Massachusetts, the organization campaigning for “Yes on 3,” has support from organizations ranging from the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association to Google and Eastern Bank. The committee has received almost $4 million, and spent more than $3 million

On-air during “Equality Time” earlier this month, Johnstone reminded the listeners that being transgender is not a choice. “The half- to one-percent of the nation’s population is trans, whether you are out of the closet or not. And none of us asked for it.”

“We change our body to match our mind, because science cannot do the opposite. It cannot change your brain,” she said.

Nationally, 0.6 percent of the population identify as transgender, according to the Williams Institute’s 2016 data. There is no federal law protecting transgender people against discrimination, according to the ACLU. Earlier this month, a memo obtained by the New York Times indicated that the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking to define gender narrowly based on the genitalia that a person is born with.

Massachusetts is one of 19 states, that offer legal protection based on gender identity. At least 200 cities and counties prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, according to the ACLU.

In April, 2018, voters in Anchorage, Alaska defeated a ballot measure limiting access to bathrooms and locker rooms based on sex at birth rather than gender identity by 5 percent.

A Chinese-American business owner who signed the petition to repeal the law said she is not against transgender people.

“Previously, the laws protect us, the 95 percent. This law protects the 5 percent transgender people and criminals, pedophiles and voyeurs,” said the mother of three, who refused to be identified for fear of being targeted.

“I don’t want to be offensive to transgender people, but what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. Men should use men’s bathrooms and women should use women’s bathrooms,” she said.

Pankaj Pradhan, a chef in Watertown, however, doesn’t differentiate cisgender and transgender people as “we” and “the other.”

Asked by a volunteer for Freedom for all Massachusetts outside the Boston Vegetarian Food Fest recently whether he supported transgender rights, he said yes.

“You’ll never know what’s going to happen. Tomorrow maybe I’ll have kids, and they could be transgender. How do you know? At that time, you’ll be fighting for the same things as these people are,” he said.

Yukun Zhang wrote this for The Sun Chronicle as part of the Boston University Statehouse program.

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