By Emily Mitchell
On Wednesday evening, October 3, I joined a group of Bedford residents and local leaders in the Flint Room at Town Center to talk about the “Yes on 3” campaign, which encourages voters to affirm the 2016 legislation protecting transgender people from discrimination by voting yes on Ballot Question 3.
I didn’t go there with questions or uncertainty about my position on the ballot question—in fact, I was one of the event organizers. But I came away with an even deeper conviction that passage of Question 3 is critical to protecting the civil rights of all people, particularly our most vulnerable populations. As Rev. Molly McGinnis, one of the representatives from the Yes on 3 campaign said that night, “I never thought that Massachusetts, of all places, would put my rights on the chopping block.”
Question 3 asks voters to affirm a law passed in July 2016 that added gender identity to the list of prohibited ground for discrimination in public places (along with race, sex, religious creed, and other markers of identity). A YES vote upholds the law and makes no changes; a NO vote repeals the law. The text of the ballot question can be found here: https://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/ele18/ballot_questions_18/ballot_questions18.htm
Bedford Embraces Diversity and the Violence Prevention Coalition co-sponsored the event. Selectman Margot Fleischman opened the forum by welcoming the audience and her fellow speakers: State Representative Ken Gordon; Rev. Molly McGinnis, faith organizer for Yes on 3; and Kelsey Barowich, Yes on 3 coalition organizer. Attendees included Chief Robert Bongiorno and Lt. Scott Jones from the Bedford Police Department, Sue Baldauf of Bedford Youth and Family Services and the Violence Prevention Coalition, and Marilou Barsam and Tricia Anderson from Bedford Embraces Diversity.
Rep. Gordon used his experience as an employment discrimination lawyer, while the 2016 legislation was under consideration, to refute common arguments from legislators who opposed the law, such as a concern that public support of transgender people would hurt Massachusetts businesses. “Transgender civil rights are good for business,” Rep. Gordon stated, “and that’s why so many Massachusetts businesses have endorsed Yes on 3.” Yes on 3 counts among its coalition partners many MA-based businesses, including GE, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and Eastern Bank.
“This is a Commonwealth that will create a safe and welcoming environment for all people, including transgender people,” Rep. Gordon said. “This is Massachusetts, and the rest of the nation is watching us. This is a test case.”
Rep. Gordon and Selectman Fleischman both noted the unusual nature of this ballot question. Historically, a yes vote on a ballot question makes a change, while a no vote rejects a change. In this case, however, the options are switched: a YES vote upholds the existing legislation and makes no change; a NO vote repeals the law and removes the protections against discrimination.
Rev. McGinnis, a Presbyterian minister, spoke of their personal experience as a transgender person. Growing up as a tomboy in the South with supportive parents, “I always knew that it was OK to be gay,” Rev. McGinnis said. “But I didn’t know anything about transgender people. I wonder a lot how different my adolescence could have been, had I only known.”
Rev. McGinnis noted that visibility and support of transgender people has been growing in recent years, but legislation has lagged behind: only 19 states include gender identity as a prohibited ground for discrimination. “As a pastor, I’m called to live authentically, and to make sure that people are loved, seen, and safe,” they said. “That’s why I support Yes on 3.”
Kelsey Barowich remarked on the process of passing the 2016 legislation and getting Question 3 on the ballot. The existing law went into effect on October 1, 2016, and by mid-October, opponents had gathered enough signatures to place a repeal question on the 2018 state ballot. Barowich noted that the number of signatures needed (32,000) represents less than 1% of the voting population of Massachusetts. Yes on 3’s goal is not only for voters to approve the ballot question, but to do so overwhelmingly, to demonstrate broad support within the Commonwealth.
A WBUR poll of likely voters in September showed more than 70% of respondents supported the law and would vote yes. Barowich encouraged forum attendees not to get complacent about such poll numbers. She cited a similar recent campaign in Houston, TX, where advance polling showed 60% support, but the Election Day returns brought a loss, with only 39% of voters in support. The difference, Barowich said, was a late surge of ads from the opposition that relied on the language of fear. Yes on 3 expects a similar ramp-up of messaging opposed to Question 3 in the final days before the election on November 6. The No on 3 campaign is led by a group called “Keep MA Safe,” which is affiliated with the Massachusetts Family Institute, a right-wing advocacy group.
Barowich noted that the messaging from the No on 3 campaign suggests that the existing legislation places women and children at risk of assault in bathrooms and locker rooms. “We know this is not true,” she said. “This law protects women and children because transgender people are also women and children.” Since the nondiscrimination language went into effect in 2016, there has been no uptick in crimes occurring in bathrooms, according to a recent study by the Williams Institute (https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/09/11/study-finds-link-between-transgender-rights-law-and-bathroom-crimes/1YWqSptLXOSiobmbH0RBMM/story.html).
According to Barowich, only 20% of Americans know someone who is transgender, which may contribute to misunderstandings or confusion about what it means to be transgender. “What we’re doing with voters is culture change,” she said.
Fleishman closed the event by reminding attendees, “This is our normal: we’ve been living with this law since 2016 and the sky did not fall.” Barowich encouraged anyone interested in getting involved with the campaign to sign up on the Yes on 3 website, https://www.freedommassachusetts.org/.
The forum was recorded and will be available on Bedford TV. A PowerPoint deck outlining many of the points discussed can be found here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1yH97G26HmO-bEX-aPCe94Yuwehu_8C7S