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Valley activists urge ‘yes’ vote on Question 3

  • —Leah Cirker-Stark

  • —Becky Wright



Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — When Lorelei Erisis, a transgender woman, started her transition, she frequently drove back and forth from Boston to Western Massachusetts.

“I would try to hold my pee for three hours because I was terrified of using a bathroom on the Pike,” she said. She had never been harassed in a bathroom, but she considers herself both lucky and privileged. She knows it happened to some other transgender people.

“Every time I used the bathroom it was a roll of the dice,” she said.

More recently, a Massachusetts state law — one that Erisis helped pass as an activist — gives her and other transgender people legal protection against discrimination in public places, including bathrooms. In November, voters will decide on Question 3, whether or not to keep that law in place. A “yes” vote keeps the law in place, while a “no” vote repeals it.

“An Act Relative to Transgender Anti-Discrimination,” signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in July 2016, inserted gender identity into a pre-existing law that protected people from discrimination in public places on grounds such as race and religion. When it comes to bathrooms, it allows transgender people to use the one that matches their gender identity.

After it passed, a coalition called Keep MA Safe, now the major group pushing to repeal the law, gathered signatures for the referendum.

“It’s ripe for abuse,” spokeswoman Yvette Ollada said of the law.

The campaign is centered around the safety of women and children in bathrooms, and the group says that this law would allow male predators into bathrooms and locker rooms where they could harass women, because the definition of gender identity is “very broad.”

Massachusetts law says that gender identity must be “sincerely held as part of a person’s core identity.”

Guidelines from the Massachusetts attorney general’s office explain that the law contains safeguards against it being used for an “improper purpose.” It reads, “This means that a person may not fraudulently assert gender identity to gain access to a sex-segregated facility in which they would otherwise not be permitted.”

Ollada cited an incident from Plainville in which a man was charged with taking photos of a woman changing in a TJ Maxx bathroom. Keep MA Safe’s website cites other examples of cases around the country like this.

But harassment and anything else illegal is still illegal.

“This new law does not provide any protections for someone who engages in improper or unlawful conduct,” the attorney general’s guidelines read, “whether in a sex-segregated facility or elsewhere.”

“I believe that they are trying to scare people,” Erisis said of Keep MA Safe’s framing. She sees the law as protecting women and children, “There are an enormous number of trans women and trans youth,” she said.

Supporting research

Matt Wilder, spokesman for Yes on 3, the main group in favor of keeping the law, said that the fearful picture Keep MA Safe promotes is one that just hasn’t materialized. ​​​​​​

Some research backs him up. Peer-reviewed research published in the academic journal “Sexuality Research and Social Policy” analyzed crime data in areas in Massachusetts that adopted gender identity as part of discrimination protection in public places. Researchers found the rules didn’t affect rates of crime in bathrooms, locker rooms or changing rooms.

It did not measure the effect of the law passed in 2016 that’s now up for repeal because the research was started before the legislation was passed, explained Amira Hasenbush, first author on the paper and a fellow at UCLA Law’s Williams Institute.

Any safety violations in bathrooms are “extremely rare,” according to Hasenbush. Those incidents are reported at a rate of four per 100,000 people, while violent crimes in Massachusetts were reported in 2015 at a rate of 391 per 100,000, according to Hasenbush.

In response to fears of public safety threats, Hasenbush said,“That is not grounded in the evidence. We’ve done the research now — that fear doesn’t hold.”

Another journal-published analysis found since 2004 there have been 14 cases across the country, none of which occurred in Massachusetts, of someone pretending to be the opposite gender and committing a sex crime in a bathroom or changing room.

“The whole idea that people need to worry about their safety is so backwards,” said Abbie Goldberg, Clark University professor of psychology. “The people that are worrying about their safety are the trans students looking for a place to pee.”

Goldberg surveyed 600 transgender college and graduate students about their experiences in higher education.

She interviewed students who did not finish school and restrooms, she said, came up a lot.

“They were the number one thing that students cited,” Goldberg said.

Some students would go far out of their way to find a single-stall restroom, and some reported being harassed in the bathroom. “I have students who told me stories about being chased out of restrooms,” she said

So far in the polls, the results show most people are in support of the keeping the law. A University of Massachusetts-Lowell and Boston Globe poll found that 74 percent of people would vote yes and 22 percent planned to vote no to repeal the protections.

Karen Robitaille, who has a 21-year-old transgender son, is one of the law’s supporters. From an early age, her son identified as a boy, but finding a bathroom was not always easy.

“I know firsthand,” she said “how much we as a family struggled to do something simple that most people don’t even think about.”

With a kid who differs from the norm, she said, fear is a constant companion. But she finds some comfort in the discrimination protections.

“Obviously, a piece of legislation can’t dictate people’s behavior, but it does give people a reason to pause and think,” she said.

After the law passed in 2016, Erisis hoped she and other groups could go back to supporting the daily needs of transgender people. The community faces high rates of poverty and reports more employment and housing discrimination.

Erisis’ friend Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, a fellow western Massachusetts transgender activist, was the first known trans woman to be killed this year in the U.S. Her husband has been charged with the Jan. 4 slaying in their North Adams home.

“We could have been doing work to prevent that sort of thing,” she said. But instead, they’ve been focusing for two years on keeping this law in place.

“I started the year with a friend of mine getting murdered,” Erisis said. “And instead of really coping with that and while that was going on, I was still having to fight to pee. I’m still fighting for basic protections.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com