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Guest Opinion: Why Massachusetts matters

by Jim Mitulski

The Reverend Jim Mitulski. Photo: Courtesy Jim Mitulski
The Reverend Jim Mitulski. Photo: Courtesy Jim Mitulski  

"Hi! My name is Jim, and we're in the neighborhood today talking about human rights and civil rights for Massachusetts citizens. And, in particular, we want to talk about equal rights for our transgender friends and neighbors ..."

This was my opening as I - and friends from Freedom for All Massachusetts - go door-to-door canvassing, engaging as many people as possible in face-to-face conversations about transgender equality.

Two years ago, Governor Charlie Baker signed a transgender protection bill into law. Shortly thereafter, a conservative Christian group, Renew MA Coalition, began collecting signatures to put a referendum on the ballot revoking the protections, which cover the usual array of civil rights protections in regard to public accommodations. They have dubbed it the Bathroom and Locker Room Bill, and say it is necessary to strip these protections in order to protect children and adults from having their privacy invaded. Particularly in restrooms. They wield both homophobia and transphobia to frighten people into supporting them, suggesting that sexual harassment and molestation are the inevitable result of equal rights, though not one instance of this can be documented in the two years the law has been on the books. As a result, Massachusetts voters will be the first state to consider the revocation of equal rights for transgender people.

Earlier this year a similar initiative failed in Anchorage, Alaska. But proponents sent out flyers to religious groups across the state with a graphic showing an adult man peering over the bathroom stall at a child. Unsurprisingly, this same coalition of religious people and unabashedly right-wing conservatives is passionately dedicated to preventing any legislation that would prevent local law enforcement agencies from functioning as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The Renew MA Coalition and the Keep MA Safe campaign want to be sure that this East Coast blue state doesn't pass the Safe Communities Act, similar to provisions that Governor Jerry Brown signed into law last October declaring California a sanctuary state.

It's a marker that New England's most liberal state can't pass legislation that is similar to that already passed by California. Fear of difference is resulting in a fusion of transphobia and anti-immigrant bias. I observed this most painfully when I saw that a Latino congregation in Boston, where I had participated in an immigrant rights rally last year, is hosting an anti-transgender community organizing training put on by the Renew MA Coalition, which is vehemently in favor of continued deportation and even family separation. Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004, may now become the first state to take away already enacted transgender protections.

All around the state, transgender people - as well as friends and allies - are speaking up. In my own traditional Congregational Church in Needham, church member Tracy McKay recently spoke to the congregation about being the mother of two transgender children. McKay's children are known and loved by the church; they were baptized and confirmed there. She bravely spoke as a parent to the other parents in the room and asked for their support because she wants for her children what every parent longs for, her children's safety and protection. The Protestant, Baha'i, Jewish, Quaker, and Unitarian Universalist religious leaders in Needham agreed upon a collective statement urging people to "Vote Yes to Protect," which concluded with:

"We strive to love all people unconditionally as God loves all unconditionally. We are called to love What Is Holy and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We especially want our children and teens to hear this in the clearest possible terms: All children are beloved to us with the same unconditional love that God bestows upon all humanity. This unequivocally includes every child who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender, questioning, queer, intersex, nonbinary, cisgender, or straight. As faith leaders and representatives, we are deeply saddened by, and sorry for, any experience that you have had in a religious setting or community that has, in any way, made you feel less than fully valued as members of the human family. Hear us as we say clearly: God loves you, and you are loved by countless leaders and communities of faith."

And in our little town of 30,000, we have formed the Needham Coalition for Transgender Rights, a collaboration of faith, political, and cultural groups, including the League of Women Voters, the Needham Diversity Initiative, and Progressive Needham. I mention this because local organizing like this is going on everywhere around the state. While optimistic, we know we cannot win this without a lot of support. The simple message is that solidarity among all kinds of people is vital to our success. It can't just be LGBT people and our friends and families. I remember in 1999 and 2000 working on the No on Knight Proposition 22 campaign in California, an ugly - and successful - initiative banning same-sex marriage. I worked with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (as it was called then) and Metropolitan Community Church-San Francisco and others to form the Bayard Rustin Institute. We went door-to-door throughout the city, talking to people about the merits of equal marriage rights. Even in the Castro we found LGBTQ and straight people who were unaware of the upcoming vote. And we were able to register many Democrats who had never voted, or had not voted in years. We still lost that vote 61 percent to 39 percent.

Transphobia is rampant in our culture, and fostered by our current president and attorney general. Standing up for, and with, the transgender communities has never been more important. We have a government that is willing to ban transgender military members, which, at the same time, is also expelling immigrants once promised citizenship from the military as well. We have a government that is re-allocating unused Ryan White funds needed to care for people with HIV and AIDS to pay for the ongoing incarceration of children and families seeking refuge or asylum, a number of whom are also transgender, and who face certain death if returned to their countries.

Californians, we need your help. Donate to Freedom for All Massachusetts. Host a house party, or a benefit. The children of my current congregation just raised $485 with a lemonade stand for RAICES, a Texas-based civil rights group working to reunite families separated by ICE. If they can do that, think what you can do to express your concern for transgender rights and for human rights. Finally, we need everyone who is eligible to vote in November to show up. Do you have friends or relatives in Massachusetts? Talk to them about this bill and tell them what's at stake. A vote for a progressive candidate in California is another way to Vote Yes on 3 in Massachusetts.

Here's what happened when I went door-to-door in Malden and Needham. I drew on my experience of the No on Knight/Prop 22 campaign to overcome my shyness about engaging strangers on this topic. I felt a little bit like a missionary for liberation. Some quoted the Bible to me (not knowing I am a minister - that was kind of fun), and I told them that it was because I am religious I supported these rights. And even if I didn't believe as I do, I would never want to see my religion used to justify discrimination. More often, people would share with me, "Well, I have a gay brother," and sometimes, "my sister (or my daughter) is transgender." The best reaction was the guy who invited me in to meet three generations of his Haitian family in their kitchen, and he translated my pitch, and one by one they nodded in agreement. He said, "We're black, we're immigrants, of course we support transgender rights." Even when I got a negative or tepid reaction, if I was able to keep them in the conversation for a few minutes, they were persuaded to either vote yes to protect human rights, or at least keep an open mind. Now is the time to take a stand - what happens in Massachusetts can send a message to the entire country: transgender rights are human rights, and we all stand together.

For more information or to donate, visit Freedom For All Massachusetts at www.freedommassachusetts.org, Needham Coalition for Transgender Rights at https://www.facebook.com/NeedhamForFreedom/, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services at https://www.raicestexas.org, or Progressive Massachusetts at www.progressivemass.com.

Jim Mitulski is a United Church of Christ pastor in Needham, Massachusetts, and an organizer with the Progressive Needham Chapter of Progressive Massachusetts. He was the pastor of MCC-San Francisco for 15 years when it was located in the Castro district, and of New Spirit Community Church in Berkeley at Pacific School of Religion for six years.

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