BOSTON — Massachusetts voters on Tuesday supported a state law that protects transgender people from discrimination in public accommodations, including bathrooms and locker rooms, rejecting efforts by opponents to repeal the 2-year-old law in the first statewide referendum in the U.S. on transgender rights.
Supporters of the law had feared a vote to repeal would prompt a wave of similar efforts to roll back protections in other states. Massachusetts was the first to legalize gay marriage and is viewed as one of the most LGBT-friendly states.
Critics say the 2016 law allowed sexual predators to invade private spaces for women by claiming female gender identity. No such incidents have been reported in Massachusetts since the measure took effect.
Activists on both sides of the debate watched the Massachusetts vote carefully. National LGBT rights groups, and the American Civil Liberties Union, offered financial support and other resources for the ballot campaign, helping supporters of the law outraise and outspend by a wide margin those who wanted to repeal it.
The National Center for Transgender Equality called Tuesday's vote "a stunning rebuke of anti-transgender lies and prejudice."
Nineteen other U.S. states have similar laws or legal precedents protecting transgender people, but the vote in Massachusetts was the first statewide referendum on the issue.
"We are deeply disappointed that the people of Massachusetts will continue to be forced to sacrifice their privacy and safety in the name of political correctness," said Andrew Beckwith, legal analyst for No On 3- Keep MA Safe.
The stakes appeared to rise even higher last month following a report that the Trump administration was considering adoption of a new definition of gender that would effectively deny federal recognition and civil rights protections to transgender Americans. The New York Times reported that the Department of Health and Human Services was circulating a memo proposing that gender be defined as an immutable biological condition determined by a person's sex organs at birth.
LGBT leaders in Massachusetts said the prospect of federal action made it even more critical that voters uphold existing state laws.
Laverne Cox, a transgender actress who was nominated for an Emmy Award for her role in the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," was among those who appeared at an Oct. 24 news conference in Boston to lend her name and voice to the campaign for a "yes" vote that would keep the law.
Opponents of the 2-year-old law argued their intent was not to strip protections for transgender people or legalize discrimination. Instead, they said, the goal was to protect women from being harassed or assaulted by criminals falsely claiming to identify as female.
One ad run by the group Keep Massachusetts Safe depicted a sketchy-looking man entering a women's locker room as a young woman begins to undress. LGBT groups blasted the ad and others like it as scare tactics, but opponents of the law defended the approach.
"That is what the law allows for, and if it's scary, then that is because we are talking about something that is scary," said Yvette Ollada, a spokeswoman for the repeal advocates.
The law allows for the prosecution of any person "whose assertion of a gender identity is for an improper purpose." A review of complaints filed with the state attorney general's office and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination turned up only a handful directly related to the 2-year-old law, and none specifically alleging predatory behavior in a women's bathroom or locker room.
Nicole Talbot, a 17-year-old transgender girl, was among several teens who spoke out in favor of the law in interviews and in ads aired by supporters designed to humanize transgender people.
"Transgender people ... we're just trying to live our lives as who we are like everyone else and that includes going to the bathroom; that includes going to work, that includes buying coffee at a coffee shop, going out to dinner or seeing a movie," she said.
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