The Campaign to Preserve Massachusetts’ Trans Protections Was Successful Because It Centered Trans People

It’s a winning strategy that should be carried forward.

Laverne Cox speaks at a lectern with other activists.
Laverne Cox speaks at Boston Alliance of LGBTQ Youth on Oct. 24 in Boston. Natasha Moustache/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The outcome of a Massachusetts ballot measure may offer a glimpse of what comes next for transgender rights nationwide. Yesterday, roughly 68 percent of respondents in the state said “yes” to Question 3, upholding existing nondiscrimination protections on the basis of gender identity. The vote marked the first time trans rights have come up for a statewide referendum—and a rare success in the face of the “bathroom predator” myth that has plagued the community for years.

While Massachusetts has a strong record on LGBTQ rights, people and organizations on both sides of the battle over Question 3 took nothing for granted. Those within Massachusetts and beyond treated it as a crucial test case that could encourage similar challenges elsewhere, and allocated resources accordingly: Per reports from the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, the “No on 3” initiative received tens of thousands in donations from out-of-state conservative activists like Sean Fieler, as well as groups like the Family Policy Alliance, an arm of Focus on the Family with a history of spreading misinformation about trans people.

Despite such right-wing opposition at the national level, Senate Bill 2407 and the effort to preserve it have received bipartisan support. It was signed into law in 2016 by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who personally donated to the “Yes on 3” campaign when it later came under threat. (He also won re-election last night, while James Lyons Jr., who first introduced the petition to repeal it, lost his seat in the state’s House of Representatives.)

The coalition that came to SB 2407’s defense drew on a range of tactics, from TV ads to phone banking to canvassing, but in a victory speech Tuesday night, “Yes on 3” co-chair Mason Dunn’s takeaway was simple: “We win when we are trans-led, by and for our community.”

“We’ve done the largest campaign for trans protections in U.S. history, and we’ve written the playbook that advocates will use going forward in transgender rights,” said Freedom for Massachusetts’ Kasey Suffredini later that evening. He, too, credits the foregrounding of trans bodies and voices, both in ads and within the campaign itself, and one-on-one conversations between volunteers and voters—of which there were more than 100,000 in the months leading up to the midterms.

The strategy was first tried and tested in Florida in 2015, where researchers from Stanford and UC–Berkeley concluded that “deep canvassing” (i.e., meaningful, experience-driven conversations rather than shorter, scripted ones) could “durably reduce” transphobia. Where volunteers proactively talked through potential concerns and established common ground, conservative Miami voters became, on average, more positive toward trans people and more supportive of local nondiscrimination laws—and stayed that way for months, even if they were later shown anti-trans political advertisements.

That last point was particularly important in Massachusetts, where the “No on 3” movement leaned heavily on myths about trans people (and/or men pretending to identify as women under the auspices of the law) as a threat. The first thing visitors to the Keep MA Safe website encounter is a little girl holding up her hand in a “stop” motion, recalling the now-familiar refrain that predators will enter bathrooms unimpeded unless these protections are rolled back. That anxiety is echoed in the “No on 3” logo, which shows a man standing on a toilet in order to spy on a woman in the neighboring stall. And on social media, organizational fearmongering only got more overt: The Massachusetts Family Institute tweeted out a GIF of a woman with duct tape over her mouth, suggesting that they are being silenced by the law’s very existence.

The claim that trans rights come at the cost of cis women’s safety and privacy has been refuted over and over. A comprehensive study from UCLA’s Williams Institute, which compared Massachusetts localities with and without trans-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances prior to SB 2407’s passage, found no correlation between these protections and criminal incidents in public bathrooms, locker rooms, or changing rooms—which are “exceedingly rare” to begin with. But the specter of these hypothetical predatory men has dogged the trans rights movement since 2015, when it led to the repeal of Houston’s human rights ordinance. Only with the “Yes on 3” approach—engaging with these misconceptions head-on and carefully, kindly dismantling them, with an emphasis on the humanity of all involved—has it finally been dispelled.

It’s a surprisingly heartening lesson for a political moment in which the most vulnerable are actively demonized or simply erased entirely. In Massachusetts, at least, a combination of hard facts and human connections won out over fearful rhetoric. For marginalized communities elsewhere in the country, the hope now is that the strategy will scale.