MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: a statewide mid-term fight over transgender public accommodations.
As of June, 18 states as well as the District of Columbia have adopted laws expanding transgender rights.
These laws protect transgender individuals from losing employment, housing, or public accommodations based on their status. More than 200 municipalities have also adopted similar local ordinances.
NICK EICHER, HOST: Some of these laws give individuals the right to use sex-segregated facilities based on their chosen gender identity. Those facilities include restrooms, locker rooms, showers, and changing rooms.
Now for the first time, a statewide referendum on one such bill in Massachusetts will determine whether it stays—or whether it goes. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has our story.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: In 2016, the Massachusetts law in question worked its way through the Democratic-controlled state legislature. Opponents had some hope that Republican Governor Charlie Baker would veto the bill.
But transgender activists applied pressure, and in July 2016, Governor Baker signed the bill into law. He called it necessary to protect the dignity of transgender people in public places.
BAKER: We should be publicly accommodating. We shouldn’t discriminate against people.
The law requires businesses to open public places segregated by sex to anyone based on chosen gender identity. The law doesn’t require someone to provide any proof or explanation to access a single-gender facility.
It also added the term “gender identity” to the state’s anti-discrimination statutes, placing it on par with race and sex.
Andrew Beckwith is president of the Massachusetts Family Institute. He says his organization immediately began strategizing to repeal the bill.
BECKWITH: There’s a provision of the Massachusetts Constitution that allows for that. So we had to gather in the summer of 2016, about 50,000 signatures over the course of 45 days.
The group succeeded but missed the deadline to get a referendum on the 2016 ballot.
Beckwith says that gave the Keep Massachusetts Safe campaign two years to educate voters. The campaign wants people to know how the law especially endangers women and children.
BECKWITH: As a dad, if I’m standing out in the hallway, outside the women’s locker room at the local Y waiting for my daughter to change after swim lessons. And I see a guy approaching the women’s locker room door, and I step in front of him and say, excuse me, please, wait till my daughter comes out. I can go to jail for up to a year. And if I did that repeatedly, uh, it could be fined up to $50,000.
He says transgender rights laws like this are hypocritical in the midst of the #MeToo movement.
BECKWITH: Now you’ve got a direct conflict between the privacy and comfort of the woman and the comfort of the man who identifies as a woman and the way this law resolves that is it tells a woman, she’s got to be silent and just to deal with it.
But will Massachusetts voters see the hypocrisy? Voters head to the polls in November to either vote “yes” to keep the law or “no” to repeal it. If it’s repealed, a 2011 state law will still protect transgender people from discrimination in the workplace and in housing.
But right now, repealing it looks like a long shot. The Boston Globe’s latest poll shows 73 percent of the state favors keeping the law. Just 17 percent oppose it.
Beckwith says opposition might grow if people negatively affected by the law spoke out, but they are afraid to. For instance, this year a female spa owner refused to give a man a Brazilian wax. He still had male genitalia but identified as a woman.
BECKWITH: And he filed a lawsuit or a civil rights discrimination claim with attorney general’s office that he was denied this service as a public accommodation because of his gender identity. The spa owner still refuses to talk about it.
Another problem—the Yes on Three campaign has a lot more money. It’s raised $2.7 million. Beckwith’s Keep Massachusetts Safe campaign has raised only $286,000 dollars.
George Cronin is the managing director of Rasky Partners, a public relations firm in Boston. He’s worked on many Massachusetts ballot question campaigns. Cronin says that the funding disparity makes a big difference.
CRONIN: I’d be hard pressed to articulate what the “No” side message is, and that’s probably one of the challenges. And in this case we haven’t seen anything that suggests that the “No” side has got the resources it needs to get its message out.
But Cronin says the stakes likely will narrow in the next three weeks as more people become aware of the initiative. If Beckwith and his allies are victorious, Cronin says it would be a David and Goliath victory, especially since Massachusetts is a blue state.
Even if the initiative fails, Andrew Beckwith says the run at repealing the law won’t be a failure.
BECKWITH: People should be encouraged to know that they’ve got a good chance of stopping this if they fight back.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.