Transgender rights lie in the hands of a state's electorate

BOSTON (AP) — Nicole Talbot isn't quite old enough to vote next month, but she isn't shy about urging Massachusetts residents who are to keep a state law that protects transgender people from discrimination, including the right to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.

It makes her feel safe, Talbot said, which wasn't always the case for the teenager, an accomplished singer with dreams of a Broadway career. For as long as she can remember, she felt she was a girl — like the time she insisted upon being a princess at a preschool Halloween party — even when the world beyond her mother subjected her to taunts and discrimination.

Now, 17, Talbot, who began her transition in the seventh grade, is lending her name and story to the campaign against a ballot question that would repeal the 2016 law.

"It allows me to live as who I am and have every right that every other person in the state has," said Talbot.

Setting the stage for the first-ever statewide referendum in the U.S. on a transgender rights law, opponents collected enough signatures to place a repeal question on the Nov. 6 ballot. Transgender rights supporters worry — and opponents of the laws hope — that if the repeal passes in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize gay marriage and among the most LGBT-friendly, it could unleash a cascade of similar efforts elsewhere.

"For this to happen in Massachusetts, where we have this reputation of being an inclusive state dedicated for equality and dignity for all people, to see what happens on this (question) is really going to be an important moment for transgender rights nationally," said Mason Dunn, executive director of the Massachusetts Trans Political Coalition.

A spokeswoman for the group leading the repeal effort declined to speculate on the potential impact of the referendum on 19 other states with similar transgender-rights laws.

"Nationally, we're not trying to change anything; we are trying to change Massachusetts," said Yvette Ollada, of Keep Massachusetts Safe. "This law goes too far."

Repeal backers argue their intention is not to strip protections for transgender people or legalize discrimination. Instead, in what trans rights supporters describe as a familiar but unjustified fear tactic, they say they want to protect women from being harassed or assaulted by criminals falsely claiming to identify as female.

One ad backing repeal depicts a sketchy-looking man entering a women's locker room as a frightened-looking young woman begins to undress.

"That is what the law allows for, and if it's scary, then that is because we are talking about something that is scary," Ollada said.

Had the Legislature adopted a proposal to exclude registered sex offenders from the law's protections, there likely would not have been a referendum, she said.

The law, though, already allows for the prosecution of any person "whose assertion of a gender identity is for an improper purpose."

The Associated Press requested records from the state attorney general's office and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which turned up only a handful of complaints directly related to the 2-year-old law, and none alleging predation in bathrooms or locker rooms.

But neither do records suggest widespread discrimination against transgender people over access to bathrooms or locker rooms.

Of the fewer than 10 complaints filed with the state anti-discrimination agency, probable cause was found in only one case, involving a transgender man who claimed he was barred from the men's section of a facility that provides free clothing for the poor.

Repeal backers also say some businesses may be reluctant to report abuse of the law because they fear doing so would leave them vulnerable to charges of discrimination and possible fines.

In one case to which the law's critics point, a transitioning woman with male genitalia filed a complaint against a day spa with a female clientele that declined her request for a so-called "full Brazilian" bikini wax. The complaint is unresolved.

Though referred to derisively by opponents as "the bathroom bill," supporters note the law more widely prohibits discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations, including restaurants, parks and entertainment venues. A prior state law outlawed bias in employment and housing.

Jeanne Talbot, Nicole's mother, calls herself an "accidental activist."

"When people meet a transgender person, all of their fears sort of wash away," Jeanne Talbot said. "They suddenly realize that there is a person. It's not just the term transgender or an identifier, there's a human being."

Since transitioning, Nicole said, she has been mostly welcomed at her private school in Beverly, which caters to students with dyslexia. In February, she was selected after a competition to sing the national anthem before a Boston Bruins game.

The group Freedom for All Massachusetts, which wants to keep the law, reported raising just under $3.9 million through Oct. 1, compared with the $542,000 raised by Keep Massachusetts Safe, with much of the latter coming from two affiliated conservative organizations and some board members.

Public opinion polls in recent months show voters leaning toward keeping the law, with some showing wider margins than others. But supporters warn against overconfidence.

One area of concern is potential confusion over the wording of the question. A yes vote is for keeping the law; a no vote is for repeal. In contrast, voters in 2014 were told to vote yes if they wanted to repeal the state's casino gambling law; the noes won.

The transgender law has broad support from Democratic elected officials in Massachusetts, and from Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who signed the bill in 2016.

"Support for the LGBTQ community is about more than just politics — it's personal," Baker wrote in a recent op-ed published by The Rainbow Times. The governor's brother is gay and married.

But not everyone sharing the GOP ticket with Baker next month shares his view.

"It's not the transgenders that we're concerned about, it's the men who are using it and are claiming to be transgender," said Jay McMahon, the Republican nominee for attorney general, in a recent debate.