Whatever I expected from the voters of Massachusetts, it certainly wasn’t this middle-aged man in a tank top, leaning on his half-open screen door and gazing into the middle distance as he delivered a stirring speech about people born with the “soul of the woman.” Actually, he told a pair of animated canvassers right after they launched into the script clamped to their clipboards, he had been reading a lot about this particular subject. It’s not as if it’s a crime, he told them. We should just leave those people alone. “Well. That’s beautiful,” one of them offered, after a brief pause.
Neither the activists standing on a tiny porch nor this man holding forth on a bright Saturday seem to know if they’re talking about exactly the same thing, but he says he’ll vote to retain a 2016 Massachusetts law that protects trans people from discrimination in public accommodations. The canvassers—one seasoned, one brand-new, both young white professionals—record this on an app on their phones and move on to the next house, where a rheumy-eyed man peeks out from a damp apartment and chuckles darkly. “I don’t care, I’ve got my own bathroom,” he says. A red Marine Corps sign hangs above his door.
Freedom for All Massachusetts, the committee that provided the clipboards and trained volunteers earlier that morning, has been raising money for this campaign since 2016, when legislators negotiated a law that extends the state’s anti-discrimination provisions to trans people. In the months after it passed, alarmed Christian activists collected signatures for the law’s repeal. In 2018 alone, Freedom for All has raised $1.8 million, with hefty assists from national organizations like that American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign. They’ve spent $1 million this year, and now have a full-time staff of more than 20. They are officially backed by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and two dozen individual police departments; Baptist and Episcopal and Jewish houses of worship, and nearly every institution in the Commonwealth’s vast network of progressive non-profits. The Boston Red Sox, whose fans aren’t exactly known for their unwavering commitment to justice, were one of the first sports teams to sign on.
Their opposition, Keep Massachusetts Safe, has in contrast raised less than $100,000, most of it through the Massachusetts Family Institute, a locally notorious conservative Christian organization that opposes gambling, abortion, and “ the dangers of unsafe internet use.” But in Massachusetts—a generally liberal-voting, if often socially conservative, state with a large Catholic population and a moderate Republican governor—early polls suggested the measure to repeal the anti-discrimination law will be the tightest on the ballot. Some blame a crowded campaign season that’s overshadowed the issue, others point to the conservative rural areas around the Berkshires. But an explanation might also be found in the fact that this is Massachusetts, where progressive politics, even in the metro areas, have traditionally skewed towards the tepidly liberal and middle-of-the-road.
Nearly 15 years ago, Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, forced into the redefinition of legal partnership by a Supreme Court decision contested by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, as well as Mitt Romney, the governor at the time. The 2016 law that’s up for repeal—which forbids discrimination based on gender identity in public places like restaurants, hotels, and bathrooms—was signed into law a decade after the original legislation was drawn up, and followed a contentious negotiation in the statehouse. At the time, barely half of polled voters supported the law.
Functionally, these provisions on the ballot are pretty mundane, legally protecting trans and gender-nonconforming people who want to move freely through public spaces. But they’re the kinds of rights a great many people take for granted—or might not consider in the first place, were they not forced into a reckoning by circumstances out of their control.
“We were the first state to vote for marriage equality,” says Debra Robbins, the executive director of Jane Doe, Inc., one of Massachusetts’ largest sexual and domestic violence advocacy organizations. “But it wasn’t decided by the electorate, it was decided by our elected representatives. That’s what’s scary.” She made a call to Freedom for Massachusetts shortly after she heard a repeal would appear on this November’s ballot. “We have enough difficulty getting traction when it relates to the gravity of sexual violence,” Robbins says. And here in Massachusetts, as in other states, civil protections for transgender people has been framed as a threat to women’s and children’s bodies. That Brett Kavanaugh has, as of this moment, been accused of assaulting far more people than any trans person in any bathroom in Massachusetts or elsewhere is, of course, a fact left unexamined by the campaign.
“Both sides recognize this vote has national implications,” Andrew Beckwith, the president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, told Politico earlier this year. (Beckwith did not return Jezebel’s request for comment.) “If this movement can be stopped in Massachusetts, it can be stopped anywhere in the country.” Beckwith, a longtime conservative activist in the Boston area, previously worked as an immigration lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security, and is an allied attorney and alum of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which, among other things, defended sterilization for trans people in Europe last year.
A few months after the 2016 anti-discrimination bill was passed into law, the Massachusetts Family Institute announced it had collected the 33,000 certified signatures it required to add a repeal question to the ballot. Since then, the repeal campaign has focused, as other “bathroom bill” opponents have, on restrooms and locker rooms. “It’s ripe for abuse, and we’re concerned it’s going to be a threat to privacy and safety—particularly of women and children in the commonwealth,” he told Splinter around the time the bill passed.
The people at Freedom for All believe they have the conservative “playbook” for this kind of campaign figured out—as Matthew Wilder, the campaign’s spokesperson says: “Their strategy is to wait until the 11th hour, get an infusion of cash, and go on the air with very misleading and frightening advertisements.”
During my visit to Quincy, a town just outside of Boston that has one of the highest concentration of Irish-Americans in the country, many of the Freedom for All canvassers toted Kindles, on which they played a clip of a burly man standing next to a little girl in the bathroom—an ad deployed during other high-profile bathroom bill battles. In playing these clips for voters, the campaign hoped to draw out and address biases the people opening their doors might not otherwise share with these nice young people who show up and ask them if they’d ever met a trans person before.
Deanna Murphy, 42, has been working with the Freedom for All campaign since April. She thinks a ballot campaign is something she can stand to fight for: Politicians are complicated. Their admirable qualities are always bundled up with bad opinions, the compromises they’ll inevitably make somewhere down the line. In the six months she’s been canvassing, she’s run into people who tell her that while they’re sympathetic to trans people in general, their Catholic faith makes it impossible for them not to vote to repeal the law. And that’s while dealing with Murphy, who seems like an ideal canvasser: compact and peppy and patient, a schoolteacher who invokes her desire to protect her young students when she’s speaking to skeptical voters.
“If I felt as if this law put my students in danger, I wouldn’t be out here defending it,” she says. I assume she was paired with me, a member of the press, in part because of these audience-friendly qualities. In the hour-long training earlier that morning, campaign staff recommended making a personal connection: Tell the voters about the trans person you know who will be affected by this law. For Murphy, it was her brother in law. I wonder how differently the conversations go when the person invoked is themselves.
“I think at this point we’re really fighting the awareness battle,” says Wilder. “I think Massachusetts is a place where the majority of our residents are fair-minded and good people, when they have the facts in front of them.” But, he adds later, the majority of people in the state aren’t directly impacted by this law. “And so we’re asking people to really put themselves in someone else’s shoes.”
All political campaigns are cynical, and in Massachusetts, the calculations around ballot question 3 may feel particularly abstract: Of course, the larger point is to combat the forces that have made every year in the last three more deadly for trans people in the United States. But because this would be the first repeal of a civil rights provision in the state’s history, and because the margins have been so slim, and because the narrative around predators and bathrooms has become such an entrenched myth, the people hoping to retain anti-discrimination measures for trans people in Massachusetts are making particularly measured choices. Organizers know a defeat would signal open season for the rest of the country, so as long as someone checks the right box it doesn’t matter so much why. And the hundreds of businesses that have endorsed Freedom for All are also making a self-serving bet on their own brand reputations and the economic health of the state: North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom bill would have cost the state an estimated $3.76 billion over several years, as sports teams and tech companies refused to do business there. (Many of the executives at these same companies, however, failed to mention their own political donations that support anti-trans candidates and lawmakers.)
Since my visit to Boston, some of the predictions I heard from Freedom For All have come true: the campaign’s opponents released a video of a young blonde woman undressing in a bathroom in close proximity to an (inexplicably burping) man. Their gentle and pragmatic tactics have moved the polls further in their favor. So perhaps this will not be the vote that strips a swath of the population of their right to be in public without harassment or expulsion.
But as Robinson reminds nearly everyone she talks to about the ballot question, this law is a baseline extension of a civil right, not a solution. Its provisions only provide legal recourse for dealing with dangerous and hateful incidents, after the fact. “We have a problem in this country,” she says, of which the repeal initiative is a symptom. “But I’m careful to say this won’t make people safe.”