Thomas Bernard: North Adams mayor urges 'Yes' vote on Q3

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NORTH ADAMS — In 2016 the Massachusetts legislature passed, and Gov. Baker signed, "An Act Relative to Transgender Anti-Discrimination." This legislation provides legal protection to transgender people in our Commonwealth. Specifically, the law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity in places of public gathering, including restaurants and bars, entertainment and recreation venues, retail and service establishments, and healthcare facilities, among other spaces where transgender people have faced discrimination in the past.

Question 3 on the November state ballot asks voters in Massachusetts whether they approve of the anti-discrimination law. This presents an opportunity to affirm this important legal recognition of and protection for transgender people in Massachusetts.

I unreservedly and unequivocally say Yes to Question 3, and will vote accordingly.

The alternative would roll back protections and take a step backward in our shared commitment to civil rights and social justice for everyone in Massachusetts. More than that, it would deny the identities and threaten the personal safety of transgender people because of a narrow reading of one of the law's provisions.

In addition to public spaces, the anti-discrimination law also enables all people to access public restrooms and changing rooms based on their self-identified gender identity. For many, this is the crux of their objection to the law. Fears about safety and privacy have fueled the repeal effort, despite clear evidence since the anti-discrimination law's passage that such fears are unfounded. To the contrary, by providing freedom of access the current law helps protect transgender people from the verbal and physical abuse they experience when using public amenities.

The law validates the lived experiences and the honest identities of transgender people. While legislation alone cannot change hearts and minds, it can offer protection from discrimination. That is why the Yes on Question 3 campaign has received support from the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, NOW, the League of Women Voters, Jane Doe, Inc., and nearly 30 current and former Massachusetts mayors. While we cannot legislatively relieve transgender people of the entirety of that burden of discrimination, we also should not use the law to add to it.

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That is what is at stake should a no vote on Question 3 prevail. We would turn back the clock on civil rights for transgender individuals and deny them the legal protections that many of us have the luxury of taking for granted when dealing with public accommodations. This would place a cruel and unnecessary burden on transgender people, one that would add to the many risk factors they face simply by trying to live authentic lives publicly and privately.

While the anti-discrimination law does not specifically address violence against transgender people, there is overwhelming evidence that the transgender community is especially vulnerable to violence. As a mayor, it is my job to protect the safety, and the rights, of thousands. Four days after I took office in January 2018, North Adams resident Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, a prominent advocate in the transgender community both locally and nationally, was the first transgender person this year to be murdered in the U.S. Since then, I've thought long and hard about these issues and believe that voting Yes on Question 3, preserving transgender rights, makes everyone more free and no one less safe.

History demonstrates that there are several indelible truths about the pursuit of civil rights and social justice. First, that every time minority groups assert their rights they face resistance fueled by fear, ignorance, and prejudice. Second, that such resistance always seems inexplicable, indefensible, and shameful in retrospect. Finally, that discrimination has no place in the law. It is, quite simply, a denial of our highest ideals and aspirations. Transgender people in Massachusetts deserve better than this.

Supporting our transgender friends, neighbors, and family members is just as important in the small cities and towns of the Berkshires and western Massachusetts as it is everywhere in Massachusetts. A Yes vote on Question 3 affirms the right of transgender people in every corner of our Commonwealth to conduct their public lives with the same dignity, respect, and protection that so many of us are privileged to take for granted.

Public accommodations include our most private spaces. Our public decisions as voters will affect other people's most private moments. Publicly, I stand in solidarity with the transgender community. I will continue to do so in the privacy of the voting booth on Nov. 6 by voting 'Yes' on Question 3.

Thomas Bernard is the mayor of North Adams.


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