Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
This essay depicts transphobic and homophobic behavior.
To the great relief of me and pretty much everyone I know, the third ballot question in Massachusetts passed with two-thirds of voters’ support in November 2018.
Question 3 asked a simple, though nonintuitively worded, question: Should we keep “gender identity” in the non-discrimination laws of Massachusetts? A yes vote kept the law as it was and had been for two years, protecting transgender people from discrimination in public places. A no vote repealed those protections.
Many people I know in Massachusetts, or who I spoke to on the phone while volunteering with the Yes on 3 campaign, were flabbergasted this was even a question.
I wasn’t so astonished.
See, I’m in my late twenties, I’m queer and nonbinary, and I’m from Minnesota. Long a Democratic stronghold, Minnesota has had public accommodations provisions against discrimination for both sexual orientation and gender identity since the early 90s. But, as always, change comes unevenly.
In the second decade of the 21st century, Minnesota faced a ballot initiative campaign to define marriage between a man and a woman as a state constitutional amendment. To be clear, marriage between people of the same legal gender was already illegal; they just wanted to make it doubly so and no, I can’t claim to understand it either.
The No campaign in that instance emerged successful, albeit by a tiny margin, and used their momentum to roll into a movement to alter the existing state law. The state legislature passed an equal marriage bill the next spring, May of 2013, the same month I graduated from college. I sat in my Massachusetts dorm room, glued to my laptop screen and ready to cry as the votes rolled in.
My Massachusetts friends were baffled by the intensity of my reaction. Age-peers who grew up in Massachusetts have had marriage equality as the law of the land since late middle or early high school. Just under a decade might not be that long in the general scheme of things (my geology-major college roommate would argue it’s less than the blink of an eye) but in terms of where these changes land in your personal development, it is an eon.
The impact for me was: I don’t expect to win rights other than on the local level, or by any means other than by going out and working for it. I know sometimes things that seem terrible are opportunities for more progress than you could’ve imagined. And I want people younger than me — as old as I was when Minnesota got public accommodations provisions; as old as my Massachusetts friends were when their judiciary decided they could marry whomever they want; as old as I was when my home state legalized equal marriage—to have landmark cases that validate them and make their paths easier.
I was away at college when the Minnesota ballot question and legislative actions went down, but I knew plenty of people who worked on that campaign. It was won step by step, door by door, and phone call by phone call. Their momentum paid off in a huge way, in a way I personally could not have imagined happening until years or decades later. I was and am deeply grateful to the people who did that work.
For those reasons and more, I knew I had to get involved with Yes on 3. It was my time, my turn, my opportunity.
Our phonebank script focused on the usual mainstream trans narrative: A person who’s assigned at birth as one gender, but identifies as the other binary gender, and transitions to live every day as the gender they feel themselves to be.
As a nonbinary person, as a person who knows a fair number of trans people, as a person who has been “gender non-conforming” (a phrase I don’t like, personally) since long before I identified as nonbinary, I am excruciatingly aware that this is a narrow slice of the truth about how people’s gender identities and presentation get read—and misread—and policed in the world. Another narrow slice, this one my own:
A couple of weeks before election day, I was in a hotel for a conference and opted to go into the nearby women’s restroom instead of walking to the gender-neutral restrooms designated by the conference. In the couple of minutes I was washing my hands, a woman walked in, saw me, and walked right back out, thinking I don’t know what. She’d gotten the wrong restroom? I had? Whatever she thought, she clearly instinctually felt that we didn’t belong in the same restroom. And there are plenty of reports of butch cis women being harassed or policed for their restroom usage. (I use the verb “policed” deliberately, because security or cops frequently get invoked and involved in these situations.) Restroom use is not the only or necessarily the most important issue in this sphere, despite its prevalence in discussions, but it is important: everyone has to pee.
A year before the 2018 election, a Massachusetts alt-right blog posted an article about me because I’d done something they didn’t like. I got some mild harassment, online and in other spheres—long story short, much of the harassment centered on, “Ha ha, you look like a man.” My response was a shrug and So what? or Thanks for noticing!
But being obviously Not What People Expect is a double-edged sword, always. I’m visible as queer, if not genderqueer or nonbinary, in almost every space I enter, for better or for worse.
On the phone, though, making calls for Yes on 3, no one knew what I looked like. A lot of people talking to me made assumptions that we were on the same, buddy-buddy, cis and gender-conforming (see how weird that inverse looks?) side. I had to decide when and if to out myself, and usually didn’t, closeting myself for the sake of the cause. Was that the right call? Who knows.
The more time I spent phonebanking for the campaign, the more starkly the differences in conversations came out:
There were the people who said of course they were supportive, this was Massachusetts, they couldn’t imagine anyone would vote no or that we might be afraid it might not pass.
The people who were mostly supportive of trans people’s right to exist in public but had complex concerns, more and less reasonable, like, “If it passes, will my trans grandson have to use men’s restrooms? Because cisgender men are terrible, and I’m not sure he’s safe there.” (Men’s restrooms can be awful, but I assure you your grandson will be safer with this law in place either way.) Or, “I’m okay with this genderfluid person I know using whatever restroom they want, but that’s because they were assigned female at birth.” (Goddammit, you were so close to not being transphobic as fuck.) Or, “We should all have restroom stalls that no one can possibly look into.” (True! That would be ideal!)
The people who told me, “We’ll be voting no. Emphatically.” Who asked, “If I vote no, does that get rid of all the non-discrimination protections, or just gender identity?” Who said, “I want you to know that I’m voting No.” Who said, “Oh, the pedophile one?” (I repeated it was about transgender non-discrimination.) “Oh, the homosexual one!”
Nope, nope, nope. Hang up the phone, get a drink of water. Breathe.
The day before Election Day, I joined Yes on 3 to canvass for Get Out the Vote. We were only knocking on the doors of people who’d said they would vote yes, to encourage them to make specific voting plans (shown to increase turnout!).
With my buzzed hair, single earring, fleece jacket, and argyle sweater, walking through a suburban subdivision, I felt extremely and literally visible.
Here I was, avoiding eye contact with the neighbors digging in their lawn because I wasn’t sure if I was skipping their house because they’d told us they were voting no or if no one had called them at all. Talking with people’s parents (I had voter contact info for a number of young voters who were away at college) and hoping they were also supportive. Chatting with a contractor who nicely told me the voter I was looking for wasn’t home, but then responded to my cheerful, “And I hope you’ll vote Yes on 3 too!” with a short and unpromising laugh.
Election night, I couldn’t look at the results as they came in. I couldn’t let myself believe we would win, even though I also couldn’t imagine it not passing. I sat with friends, all of us trying not to look, all of us occasionally failing and giving updates to each other. The Yes on 3 campaign posted a victory statement early, but we didn’t know whether to trust it. We didn’t know whether we could. We didn’t want to get our hopes up.
But it did pass. We did win. The law stays the same. And two-thirds support is pretty damn good—not that it makes the one-third of voters who voted no any better, but hopefully it’s enough to make other states not even try to pull this kind of thing. Losing, or winning by a narrow margin, would have sent a clear message country-wide that not even Massachusetts cared that much about trans people. (I have personal quibbles with Massachusetts setting itself up as the arbiter and bellwether of progressiveness, see above about Minnesota having these particular protections since 1993, but MA has succeeded hugely in being looked to as that bellwether.)
When my friends and I finally decided enough districts had reported, we toasted our success with mead and tea. We and our other friends and all the other Massachusetts trans people and nonbinary people—and anyone else whose presentation isn’t easily parsable into a binary cis gender rubric—would stay a little more safe, at least in some ways, at least for now. I’m not going to say we won forever or that our success changes everything — it sucks that any of us even have to do any of this in the first place — but it is an important step in the right direction.
And we’ll keep doing this, as much and as often as we need to.