A middle-age man, in the same bathroom as a little girl, applies lip gloss. The little girl is confused and visibly upset. This is an ad airing in living rooms across Massachusetts, where the midterm elections loom alongside a ballot question that threatens trans rights in the state.
According to the Boston Globe, Massachusetts is about to turn into “ground zero in the latest round of the nation’s culture wars.” Voters in the Bay State will decide whether to keep or repeal the state’s 2016 anti-discrimination law this November in what will be the first statewide referendum on transgender rights.
The Massachusetts “act relative to transgender anti-discrimination” passed on Beacon Hill on July 7, 2016, extending discrimination protections in public places to trans folks and barring gender identity discrimination in housing, employment, public education and credit matters. That legislation put further pressure on the Massachusetts Attorney General to buckle down and ensure that all citizens were protected in the face of discrimination—now, ads running in the state are re-hashing the bathroom wars and utilizing anti-trans tropes to galvanize support for rolling it back.
“The message of the Keep MA Safe ad campaign is that trans people are a threat to women and children,” says Rebecca Hains, a professor of advertising and media studies at Salem State University. “It implies that men who are predators might feign a trans identity in order to enter a restroom and harm others who are using those facilities. They don’t say this outright in the ad, because words can be reasoned with. Instead, they rely on imagery to evoke a visceral, emotional response in viewers. It’s a standard persuasive technique used by advertisers. The message of these ads—that trans identity aids and abets predation—is transphobic propaganda.”
The propaganda is familiar. In Indiana, then-Governor Pat McCrory oversaw state fear-mongering when he championed HB 2, a so-called bathroom bill that would have stopped trans individuals from using the public facilities that corresponded with their gender identity. The now-ousted official tried to manipulate voters by centering “women’s safety” in order to bolster the legislation, painting trans women in particular as sexual deviants and predators. And in 2015, the city of Houston held a referendum on LGBT rights, making it the first major government to have a popular vote on LGBT rights in the country. As part of the lead-up campaigns, ads similar to Keep MA Safe’s commercials aired across the city. Now, reporter and author Steve Spacek asserts that Houston is “probably the largest, most unfriendly LGBTQ [city] in the USA at the moment”—and the Department of Justice recently sued the city over gender discrimination in city agencies.
“Repealing an anti-discrimination law would affect my work in multiple ways,” Heather Holmes, a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist and Certified Dementia Practitioner who works with LGBT elders, told Ms. “It opens a pathway for increased limitations in healthcare and housing for a population that is vulnerable because of their age status and also their sexual orientation. Repealing this law would cause older adults to go back into the closet and hide their relationships of 20, 30, 40+ years.”
LGBTQ advocates are pushing back on the repeal effort and its harmful advertisements through the Freedom for all Massachusetts campaign, a bipartisan coalition of organizations and advocates urging voters to uphold the 2016 law at the ballot box. “No one in our communities becomes less safe by laws protecting transgender people from discrimination,” said Debra Robbin, executive director of the anti-violence organization Jane Doe Inc., during the campaign launch. “This law ensures we can all live our lives with privacy and dignity.”
The campaign amplifies the actual personal—and political—stories of trans people from across the state. One of those voices comes from Jeanne Talbot, who made waves during hearings on the 2016 law with a testimony that rocked the state capitol.
“Today I am here to pave the road for equality for my child and for all other transgender people of all ages who walk beside her, and who will follow in her footsteps,” Talbot said in her 2016 testimony, which resonates as much now as ever. “My work—our work—is not done until she is protected under the law just as any other daughter, any other 14-year-old girl in the state of Massachusetts.” Talbot, mother to a trans teen named Nicole, told the campaign that she “wanted to put a face to the public accommodations legislation we were discussing that day—the face of my 14-year-old daughter.”
“On November 6th,” her daughter Nicole told the campaign, “the protections that keep me safe every single day in public spaces could disappear. We can’t let that happen to kids like me and so many others in Massachusetts. Transgender people in Massachusetts should have the same basic protections under the law as everyone else.”
Janice Josephine Carney, who has been out as trans for over 15 years, shared her own stories of the blatant discrimination. “I have been able to update my birth certificate, my driver’s license, even my military ID to have the right information on it; and my name is legally changed. But, I still have this feeling, this fear, that something could happen, even after all these years,” she told the campaign. “No one should have to live in fear, and I want to keep working until no one has to.”
Massachusetts—a state perceived as “bluer than blue”—is now faced with a decision that has national impact, and it comes at a critical time. The Trump administration has uniquely targeted the rights of LGBTQ people, and especially trans folks, and a key part of their strategy has been dismantling government structures that enforce and interpret civil rights laws. Gaps in anti-discrimination policies and the purposeful refusal to uphold existing protections leaves trans individuals, who already face epidemic levels of violence and harassment, even more vulnerable.
Jackie Ryan, who ran for—and won—a position on the elected Tantasqua School Committee as an openly trans candidate, told the Freedom for All campaign that she was disheartened to see how patchworks of anti-discrimination laws that were “sort of half there and half not” had failed the LGBTQ community. “It doesn’t make sense that a conservative community can elect me,” she said, “but that in that same community, I can legally go to a business and be denied service. That doesn’t seem right to me.”
This November, voters will decide whether that imbalance sounds right to them—and, in the process, determine whether their trans neighbors get lost in the patchwork once again.