On November 6, Massachusetts voters will decide several ballot measures, including Question 3, which asks voters to overturn public accommodations protections in the Bay State based on gender identity. Despite the Commonwealth having some of the strongest protections for LGBTQ people in the nation, the Massachusetts legislature waited nearly 30 years after protecting its residents against discrimination based on sexual orientation to pass the same protections against discrimination based on gender identity. Finally enacted in 2016, “An Act Relative to Transgender Anti-Discrimination” protects transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming people in Massachusetts from discrimination in housing, employment, and places of public accommodation, meaning spaces accessible to the public such as libraries, restaurants, shops, stadiums, hospitals, banks, etc. And it is the latter protections that Question 3 seeks to overturn.
The group behind the ballot measure, the Massachusetts Family Institute, and Keep Massachusetts Safe, the campaign chaired by the Institute’s President Andrew Beckwith, are closely partnered with Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council (FRC), and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), national organizations that have taken a unified stance against protections for LGBTQ people. The Family Research Council lists the Massachusetts Family Institute as its state-level coalition partner in the Commonwealth. And, FRC has advocated for the Massachusetts Family Institute’s opposition to Question 3 on their social media accounts.
The Massachusetts Family Institute is also a member of the Family Policy Alliance, Focus on the Family’s national network of conservative Christian-right state groups. According to Media Matters, the Family Policy Alliance donated $10,000 to Keep Massachusetts Safe, the Massachusetts Family Institute’s Question 3 campaign organization. The Family Policy Institute is also supporting the campaign on its website and in its newsletter.
Despite the influx of money and influence by these large Christian Right organizations, Massachusetts voters show strong support for the protections in Massachusetts law. In a Boston Globe poll from late October, more than two-thirds of voters said they supported keeping the existing protections. Polling is not always predictive of election results, but voters in other states have been reluctant to repeal existing protections, even in the face of well-funded anti-transgender campaigns.
The Massachusetts Family Institute has relied on misinformation and scare tactics to fuel its campaign. In its ad urging voters to repeal the current protections, the Institute implies heavily that the nondiscrimination law would protect people who would use it to gain access to private spaces in order to harm others, particularly women and girls. This myth has been used so frequently in anti-transgender campaigns and discourse that GLAAD, an organization committed to accurate reporting on LGBTQ issues, wrote an entire guide for journalists to help them debunk it. Evidence shows not only is there no increase in public safety incidents in jurisdictions with nondiscrimination protections, but a lack of nondiscrimination protections also decreases health outcomes, safety, and well-being for transgender people.
Groups in the United States aren’t the only ones peddling threats to push their anti-transgender agendas. Similar anti-transgender and “gender ideology” rhetoric is popping up in Argentina, in Tasmania, and even in Brazil’s recent election of hard-right authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro. Each campaign uses the same rhetoric about threats to “public safety” and each campaign is supported and/or funded by major right-wing advocacy organizations.
Based in the U.S., Family Watch International is active at the international level and at the United Nations, out of which there recently came reports that the US is pushing to replace the word “gender” in UN documents with the word “women.” Family Watch International president Sharon Slater often credits the anti-LGBTQ World Congress of Families for the inspiration to found Family Watch International. This year, as in many years past, the World Congress of Families played host to activists who “denounced ‘myths’ about what they portrayed as an authoritarian liberal political ideology around sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity.”
Slater’s October newsletter focused heavily on the fear that the “government” could “remove kids from their parents if they refuse to affirm their children in the opposite gender.” This threat to “parental rights” is a specious one. Again, like the Massachusetts Family Institute’s claim that nondiscrimination protections endanger personal safety, Family Watch International’s claim that parents are having their children taken away for refusing to honor their gender identity is not only false but is, in fact, the opposite of the lived experience of many transgender and gender non-conforming youth. Aside from one recent case where a court awarded custody of a transgender teenager to his grandparents, “in the absence of appropriate experts and information, courts favor the parent who rejects the child’s non-conforming gender identity.” [Emphasis added]
This election season is expected to showcase the power of public support for protections on the basis of gender identity versus the well-worn tactics of fear and intimidation. Local anti-transgender advocates and organizations are operating against public opinion with the strength of national and international organizations behind their manipulative tactics.