BOSTON — Supporters and opponents of a law banning discrimination against transgender individuals in public spaces are digging in for a fight ahead of the November elections, the outcome of which could be a test case for similar protections elsewhere.

Question 3, which will ask voters whether the state’s 2016 anti-discrimination law should be kept in place, was cleared this week for a spot on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Keep Massachusetts Safe, the group behind efforts to repeal the law, argues that it endangers women and children in public bathrooms and locker rooms, by giving sexual predators an opportunity to claim confusion about their gender in order to gain access to private areas.

"This law is way too broad and ripe for abuse," said Yvette Ollada, spokesperson for the group. "Sexual predators can, and have, taken advantage of it."

Ollada said there is "a lot of misinformation" about the law, and educating the public about its "dangers" will be key to winning over voters.

"We hope to repeal the law so the Legislature can come back with something that provides accommodations and protects everyone,” she said.

Kasey Suffredini, co-chair of Freedom Massachusetts, an advocacy group that backed the law, said its critics "falsely" portray it as a safety issue.

"These kinds of protections have been in place in some communities for decades, and we just don't see the parade of horribles that opponents cite," he said.

He said the "high stakes fight" over the transgender protections in deep-blue Massachusetts could have national implications.

"The proponents of this measure have been clear that if they are successful here they will try to repeal laws like this everywhere," Suffredini said.

Massachusetts is the only state this election cycle where voters will consider a repeal of existing transgender protections.

In Montana, a proposal that sought to have barred transgender people from locker rooms, changing rooms, restrooms and showers aligned with their gender identity recently fell short, when supporters failed to gather the signatures required to get on the ballot.

If approved, the initiative, which was similar to North Carolina’s controversial "bathroom bill," would have allowed people to sue the government if they encountered someone of the "opposite sex" in a bathroom.

Alaska voters in April defeated a similar initiative.

In Massachusetts, a "yes" vote on Question 3 would keep in place the law, which prohibits discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations, including restrooms and locker rooms. A "no" vote would repeal it.

The law, approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker in 2016, prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations. It allows people to use restrooms or locker rooms based on gender identity, not necessarily their anatomical gender.

Debate on Beacon Hill at the time was divisive.

Guidelines issued by Attorney General Maura Healey warned businesses to "not assume an individual’s gender identity solely by appearance."

The guidelines also protect business owners, by forbidding individuals from entering restrooms that don’t match their sex or gender-identity. If someone acts improperly, a business may remove that person and call law enforcement.

Polls have shown a slim majority of Massachusetts voters oppose getting rid of the law.

"Supporters of repealing this law have a pretty big hurdle to overcome," said Joshua Dyck, a political science professor and co-director of Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "The big question is can they raise enough money to put on a major campaign and make lots of ad buys to get their message out?”

The most recent fundraising reports show supporters of the repeal are lagging in the money race.

Keep Massachusetts Safe, which is backed by the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, raised about $105,000 as of the end of last year, according to the reports filed with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

By contrast, Freedom for All Massachusetts, which wants to keep the protections, raised about $457,000.

Another factor this fall will be Democratic turnout, which could tip the vote toward supporters of the law, he said.

Dyck said there is also a likelihood of confusion among voters because the law’s opponents filed a referendum petition which, under the state Constitution, requires voters to say if they approve or disapprove of a law, with a "yes" vote signaling approval.

That could benefit repeal supporters, if enough voters tick off the "no" box because they don't understand the question. Dyck said people who are confused typically vote no, thinking they are preserving the status quo.

"The no side has a built-in advantage," Dyck said.

The proposed repeal is one of three referendums on the November ballot. Question 1 would set stricter nurse-to-patient ratios in hospitals, while Question 2 asks voters to oppose the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that allowed greater political spending by corporations and labor unions.

Several other proposed ballot questions — including paid family and medical leave, a $15 minimum wage and a reductions in the state sales tax — were withdrawn by sponsors after Gov. Charlie Baker signed a so-called "grand bargain" to resolve those issues.

Likewise, a proposed "millionaires tax" to impose a 4 percent levy on the state's biggest earners was knocked off the ballot by a court challenge.

Christian Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Reach him at cwade@cnhi.com.

 

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