This November, Massachusetts voters will be given the chance to repeal a state law banning discrimination against transgender people in places of public accommodation.
The law, passed in 2016, guarantees transgender people the same access to spaces like bathrooms, sports arenas, restaurants, movies theaters and parks enjoyed by populations who are less vulnerable to exclusion and harassment. The option of repeal will be presented to voters as Question 3 on the Nov. 6 ballot. A “no” vote will repeal the law, a “yes” will keep it in place.
Opponents of the law argue that the vote is a matter of public safety, that it will shape the ability of state residents, particularly children, to navigate communities without fear of abuse. They are not wrong to make this argument. The law does indeed concern public safety. Transgender people are far likelier to face violence than non-transgender people. Transgender women, for example, are four times likelier to be murdered than the general population of women. And it is indeed the young who are especially at risk. Among the transgender people killed since January 2013, over three-quarters were below age 35. Transgender men and women are at a higher risk of suicide than the general population, a risk worsened by the psychological toll of the bigotry they often face. An estimated 41 percent of transgender people will attempt suicide at least once in their lives, significantly more than the 5 percent of the overall population who will report a suicide attempt.
This is not, of course, what the law’s opponents mean by public safety. Their messaging warns that civil rights protections for transgender people could allow for misconduct in restrooms and locker rooms. The law’s opponents are wrong. In reality, the law in no way weakens existing laws against assault and harassment. What it does is prevent the assault and harassment of a group of people who are uniquely vulnerable to these risks.
While the core purpose of the law is to provide this protection, this is not the end of its significance. In passing the law with a supermajority vote in both houses of the state Legislature, Massachusetts did more than just establish a safeguard for a vulnerable group. It affirmed something opponents of the law seem all too disposed to deny: the reality of the transgender experience.
Implicit in much criticism of the law is the suggestion that transgender people are confused, that their identity is fraudulent at best, a cover for criminality at worst. Consider what Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said about his group’s opposition to transgender rights: “[T]his is what is really at stake…the normalization of a deep psychological confusion in the minds of our children.”
When a population is marginalized and excluded, its health suffers.
But being transgender is not confusion. It is certainty. It is the absolute knowledge that your body does not match the gender you understand yourself to be. Imagine how it would feel to realize this, perhaps at a very early age, and to also know just how hostile people can be to others who came to the same realization. How much would it mean to you, in that moment, to know your state sees you, respects you and wants you to thrive? This is the message of the law as it currently stands. Now imagine seeing the law repealed by referendum, and the feeling of rejection this would evoke.
This is why the debate over this law matters so much for health. When a population is marginalized and excluded, its health suffers. Bigotry, stigma, physical violence — these traumas undermine health throughout life. On the other hand, when we all are given dignity, when we can navigate public spaces without fear of attack, when children do not have to fear a life of hardship because they were born different, health can flourish.
This November, we have a chance to reject the rejection of our transgender neighbors, friends and family, and set the right example for the rest of the country. By voting “yes” on Question 3, we vote for a safer, healthier Massachusetts.