Repeal of transgender protections unlikely

Poll shows 52% of voters support keeping law in place

VOTERS IN MASSACHUSETTS this November will be asked whether to uphold or repeal a 2016 law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in public places. The law allows transgender  people to use bathrooms and lockers rooms consistent with their gender identity, rather than their sex at birth.

The idea of repealing the law does not fare well in terms of public support. A new WBUR poll out this week shows only 38 percent support repeal, while 52 percent support keeping it in place. An earlier Suffolk University/Boston Globe survey, taken before the law went into effect, showed a similar 53 percent of voters supported the proposal at the time.

Massachusetts is one of 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. But so-called “bathroom bills” that grant or deny access for transgender individuals to public facilities have brought rolling public debate in recent years. In 2016, North Carolina became the only state to pass a law specifying that people must use facilities associated with their sex at birth, rather than their preferred gender identity. The law was eventually replaced by a compromise version after economic impacts begin to pile up. Among them, the NBA moved its All-Star game from Charlotte and the NCAA threatened to move its college basketball tournament out of the state.

Still, despite Massachusetts’ strong record on transgender rights, public opinion on the issue reflects the national divide. A 2016 survey from Pew Research Center shows 51 percent of U.S. adults believe transgender individuals should be allowed to use public restrooms that correspond with their current gender identity, while 46 percent say transgender people should use the bathroom that corresponds with their sex at birth. Gallup in 2017 found a near even split; 48 percent thought restroom use should conform to birth gender, while 45 percent favored gender identity.

Pew also found that knowing someone who is transgender makes a difference on this question; 60 percent of those who know a transgender person think they should be able to use the restroom conforming to their identity, compared to 47 percent among those who do not know someone who is  transgender. This “proximity effect” is reminiscent of the debate over same sex marriage. Before the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage nationwide, those who were close with a gay or lesbian person were more likely to support their right to marry.

But the proximity effect is likely to be less potent than it was in the public debate over same sex marriage. As recently as 2017, just 37 percent of Americans said they know someone who is transgender – far fewer than the 87 percent who said in a 2013 poll that they know someone who is gay or lesbian.

At the moment, the status of transgender rights depends on a patchwork of laws from states like Massachusetts. Congress has not passed any law explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity, the Supreme Court has yet to rule on a relevant case, and the Trump administration has reversed previous guidance protecting transgender individuals in schools and the military. Opponents of transgender accommodation hope that repealing the law in deep blue Massachusetts could start to unravel protections elsewhere. This is a new concept for voters, and many voters have yet to make up their minds. But the new polling suggests a minority of the state’s voters are ready to pull that thread.