In 2001, Rhode Island’s legislature passed a bill that was quietly revolutionary. Since 1995, gays and lesbians in the state had seen equal protections under the law in the areas of employment, credit, housing, and access to public accommodations, and this bill – one of the first of its kind – extended these protections to include gender identity and expression.
While there are still notable gaps in state law as they pertain to transgender Rhode Islanders, and transgender women of color specifically face incredibly difficult challenges, at some level we enjoy equal rights in the eyes of the state. For nearly two decades, our values and beliefs have been reflected in our laws, creating a more just society – of which our founder, Roger Williams, would have been proud.
Transgender rights activists living in our neighbor to the north have found it far more difficult to amend their state laws. A hard-fought battle in the Massachusetts House in 2016 resulted in passage of a bill extending the state’s non-discrimination protections to include public accommodations. Far-right, anti-equality forces, backed by out-of-state money, immediately started a campaign to place a repeal on the 2018 ballot. This campaign has been capitalizing on the worst fears of people who have never known a transgender person, holding up wildly inaccurate and offensive caricatures of men assaulting women in private spaces – a crime already prohibited under the law.
Just a few weeks ago, we learned the campaign to protect “Trans Law MA” would be “Yes on 3.” As Rhode Islanders, we know how important our neighbors in Massachusetts are to our everyday lives – many of us work in Boston or elsewhere in the Commonwealth, do our shopping in Seekonk and Attleboro, or have family and friends who live there. Their rights, to a real degree, are our rights. It matters to us.
If opponents of equality win in Massachusetts, we can expect the knock-on effects in New England and around the country to be staggering. Ballot questions similar to this one will appear in every state that allows them. Elected representatives, many of whom quietly support transgender people but fear saying so publicly, would be hard-pressed to stop damaging legislation from passing.
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This election will have lasting consequences, either by establishing that equal rights for transgender people are here to stay, or opening the door to further efforts to sideline transgender people as second-class citizens. When we support “Yes on 3,” we create a more just society, benefiting all – so it is incumbent upon all of us to take action. Whether it is by contributing funds, phone banking, or canvassing, anything you can do between now and November to move the needle is important. Together, we can make sure that equality for transgender people is here to stay.