Stand against transphobia in Massachusetts

November 2, 2018

Chris Legere breaks down the lies and bigotry behind an attempt by right-wingers to use a ballot measure to repeal a law that protects trans rights in public spaces.

AS THE Trump administration publicly mulls executive actions that would strip trans people of legal recognition, Massachusetts right-wingers are whipping up anti-trans fear with a statewide ballot measure to repeal a 2016 law that protects the rights of transgender people in public spaces.

The existing law bars discrimination on the basis of gender identity in places of “public accommodation” — such as restaurants, health care facilities, hotels and stores — and requires these places to allow people to use gender-segregated facilities — such as bathrooms, locker rooms or fitting rooms — based on their self-identified gender.

Fortunately, polls show that over two-thirds of Massachusetts voters plan to vote yes on Question 3 to maintain the 2016 law. But it’s important for this bigoted initiative to be defeated by as large a margin as possible.

Marching to defend transgender rights in Massachusetts
Marching to defend transgender rights in Massachusetts (Freedom for All Massachusetts | Facebook)

Massachusetts is only one of 20 states with these protections. Over half of the LGBTQ+ population in this country lives in states without these protections, and Trump is signaling that those living in states without these protections are now at risk of any federal protections being taken away, too.

Question 3 on the November 6 ballot in Massachusetts is “the first statewide referendum in the country that threatens to revoke previously guaranteed transgender rights,” the Guardian’s Josh Wood pointed out on Wednesday. “If the law is successfully repealed,” Wood added, “transgender rights activists worry that it could trigger similar campaigns elsewhere in the country.

THESE ATTACKS come in the context of two decades of gains in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights, with important victories like anti-discrimination laws and national marriage equality. But as the religious right lost the fight over marriage equality, they shifted their scapegoating tactics and began to attack trans people by pushing so-called “bathroom bills” in various state legislatures, most infamously in North Carolina.

The group organizing the anti-trans campaign calls itself Keep MA Safe, and it has followed the deceitful tactics used in 2015 to overturn Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance that expanded the city’s anti-discrimination protections to cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (among other factors) in employment, housing and places of public accommodation.

Anti-trans forces in Houston won a repeal of the ordinance after a campaign that labeled it a “bathroom law” and used fearmongering tactics that portrayed trans women as male predators waiting in bathrooms to assault women.

Keep MA Safe has used similar deceptive tactics that reinforce transphobic stereotypes around trans people being inherently predatory.

Their website’s examples of the horrible crimes that will supposedly increase unless the law is repealed are almost entirely about not trans people, but cisgender men who are “peeping Toms” and have gone into women’s bathrooms to take pictures of women against their consent. The current law, of course, changes nothing about the legality of those behaviors.

The fearmongering from Keep MA Safe also does a disservice to cis women by making it seem as if public bathrooms are the place where they face the biggest threat of harassment and assault — when, in fact, they are far more likely to be assaulted by their partners or people they know.

If the people funding campaigns against rights for trans people really wanted to protect women, they’d donate that money to organizations like the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence — which calls for a “yes” vote on Question 3 to support trans rights.

But this campaign isn’t about protecting women. It’s about attacking trans people.

The lies coming from Keep MA Safe are all the more outrageous given the fact that it is trans people who face threats when trying to access bathrooms. A 2013 survey of trans people’s experiences using gender-segregated bathrooms found that 70 percent of respondents experienced some form of denial of access or outright harassment, including 9 percent who reported being physically assaulted in a bathroom.

That same survey reported that 54 percent of respondents had developed a physical health problem as a result of not using the bathroom when they needed to go out of fear of repercussions. 58 percent of trans people report avoiding going out in public due to fear surrounding access to bathrooms.

Social pressures already make performing basic and necessary bodily functions difficult and dangerous for trans people, but these bathroom bills would provide transphobes with institutional support for their attacks against people who are just trying to pee. These factors make it difficult for trans people to participate in public life — and we should be clear that this is the actual goal of these bathroom bills.

Stopping right-wing attacks on access to bathrooms should be seen as just one step toward empowering trans people to feel safe and comfortable leaving their homes, and therefore able to organize and fight for their own liberation.

TRANS PEOPLE face all kinds of discrimination outside of bathrooms. There is still widespread exclusion of trans people from housing and employment opportunities, which results in trans people having disproportionately high rates of homelessness, unemployment and poverty.

Various federal agencies and departments have been reinterpreting civil rights law to exclude protecting trans people for months now, including before the recently leaked Trump administration memo. This is one of the results of the fact that some of the protections that trans people do have are often not laws, but policies that can be more easily reversed by new administrations.

Trying to repeal existing protections for trans people is even more appalling when combined with an awareness of how insufficient those protections are right now.

For instance, trans people face all kinds of discrimination in the health care system. Getting health insurance companies to cover trans health care is often a struggle. Trans people often have to explain basic concepts like what dysphoria is to their doctors. Getting access to reproductive health care is a particular challenge for trans people because doctors and insurers often believe this is only a necessity for cisgender women.

Mental health care is also a major concern, both because some mental health care professionals pathologize transness and hold transphobic ideas, and because trans people suffer from disproportionate rates of poverty, which makes is harder to access mental health care.

The combination of the lack of adequate mental health care and the other forms of oppression that trans people face has had disastrous consequences. The lifetime prevalence of suicide attempts in America is a shocking 41 percent for trans people — compared to 4.6 percent for the general population.

This fact has been used by some to pathologize transness, but studies have shown that trans people who live in supportive environments where they’re addressed correctly and have their needs met are significantly less likely to suffer from this depression and despair. Transness isn’t a disease — it’s our society that’s sick.

THE HIGH rates of housing and employment discrimination experienced by trans people force many to search for work outside of the legal job market. This has contributed to trans people being more likely to engage in sex work, which means they’re disproportionately affected by the recent attacks on sex workers.

The anti-sex trafficking bills known as SESTA/FOSTA have made it much more difficult for sex workers to safely find their own clients, often causing them to have to rely on pimps or to work on the streets.

Both of those options are particularly dangerous for trans people. All sex workers will face increased violence as a result of these new laws, but due to trans people’s lack of access to health care and social services, there will be a greater impact on the trans community.

The rise of these transphobic attacks coming from governmental institutions is directly related to the increase in violence against trans people on an individual level. In recent years, activists have been drawing attention to the frequency of murders of trans people, particularly of trans women of color.

Last year, 29 trans people were murdered. Almost all of these victims were trans women of color. There have been at least 23 trans people murdered this year in the U.S. — Roxana Hernández, a trans woman from Honduras who was murdered by ICE.

Media coverage of these hate crimes is usually very limited, and when stories are covered, the trans victims are often misgendered in the reports.

This grim picture of the experience of trans people in this country should make apparent the urgency in building a movement that can fight to improve the situations that most trans people find themselves in.

The society that we’re living in now is literally killing us. For us to be able to fight for our own liberation, we need to have access to basic necessities and have a sense of safety and security.

The main organization campaigning for the “yes” vote on this ballot question has been Freedom for All Massachusetts (FAM), which has been able to get a wide variety of organizations to sign onto its campaign. FAM organized a rally in Copley Square on September 16 and co-sponsored last Sunday’s trans rights rally in Boston in response to the Trump administration’s leaked memo.

History has shown us that we’ll need a mass movement of the broadest layers of society possible to mobilizea in the streets if we want to protect the rights of trans people. The left must build such a movement if we hope to win liberation for trans people and all oppressed people.

But it’s also important to recognize that reforms that address the issues I’ve mentioned will never be enough. As long as the systems that provide the material foundations for the oppression of trans people are in place, the right-wing backlash threatening to take away any gains we make will always be right around the corner.

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