By Melissa Wells
Everyone’s story is different. For some, they know as early as 3 or 5 years old. For this fourth-year marine biology major, he began questioning in middle school.
The gender binary is rigid, so he couldn’t fathom the idea that gender identities could intersect. But as his discomfort with how his body was perceived grew, so did his interest in gender. When he started experimenting with a different name, it just clicked. Or as he described it, it just felt right.
By sophomore year in high school, Max Fournier emerged. A transgender student at Northeastern University, he is now 21, living as a male for more than five years now. Originally from Portland, Fournier has found a home in Boston where he is supported by the queer community on campus.
But he is one of many transgender people across the country that still faces discrimination in the workplaces, in bathrooms, in schools and throughout their lives.
Although these struggles can prevent Fournier from being comfortable in his own skin, the passing of Question 3 during the midterm elections this November made him feel a little safer in Boston.
“I had so many queer friends who were so panicked about what would happen if it didn’t pass,” he said. “Transgender students go to school here. Some of them will live here. So, this law is pretty freaking important.”
Massachusetts voters faced the first-ever statewide referendum on protections for transgender people enacted in 2016 as state law. It had the potential to roll back safeguards intended to prohibit discrimination of transgender people in public places, including restaurants, stores and doctors’ offices. Overwhelmingly, voters chose to keep those protections in place.
For Ellyn Ruthstrom, this victory only signifies another challenge overcome in a journey that still has a long way to go.
Ruthstrom is the executive director of SpeakOUT Boston, an organization composed of speakers tasked with creating dialogue within the Greater Boston area of the LGBTQ+ community. Ruthstrom holds the only paid position within the relatively small organization, where she runs the day-to-day logistics of the oldest Speaker’s Bureau of LGBTQ+ speakers in the U.S. — or as she describes it, Ruthstrom is responsible “for the whole thing, keeping the whole thing running.”
She stressed that the organization’s role was not as a political advocacy group, but instead to educate and provide resources. However, Ruthstrom revealed SpeakOUT Boston was very busy this year working with the “Yes on 3” campaign to keep the state law in place.
“SpeakOUT was one of many organizations who was doing the work of educating. We did some training within our own organization to make sure our speakers were prepared to talk about Question 3 and we also had many of our transgender speakers out speaking regularly about it. That’s where we were very much involved: educating why it was important and giving a personal face to the issue.”
The opposition campaign, “No on 3” or “Keep Massachusetts Safe,” was accused of using the discriminatory practices the state law protects transgender people from. Representatives declined to comment. The video in question that garnered controversy portrayed what is assumed to be a trans woman as a potential predator waiting in the women’s locker room as a young teenage girl walks in.
“The sad thing is that they had no other case,” Ruthstrom said of the video. “There was no other factual case that could be made to say that these civil rights protections were bad. So, the only approach they could possibly do was this horrible fear campaign, sending these images and misinformation to make people afraid.”
Mason Dunn was the co-chair of the “Yes on 3” campaign. He is also the executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, a political advocacy organization striving to, as he stated, “end discrimination and oppression on the basis of gender identity and gender expression.” He is also a member of the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth and an adjunct faculty member at the University of New Hampshire, where his specialty is in LGBTQ images and perspectives.
As a trans activist for nearly 13 years, he wasn’t fazed by the “No on 3” campaign, echoing Ruthstrom’s statement.
“We’ve seen this from the very beginning, they – and by they, I mean the opposition – globally, not just here in Massachusetts, really focused in on bathrooms and locker rooms and sex-segregated spaces, tapping into fear and shocking arguments that really concern people but are wholly inaccurate.”
Originally from New York City, Ryan Rasdall is a 29-year-old transgender student pursuing a career in health law at the Northeastern University School of Law.
When the conversation surrounding the bathroom issue comes up, it is difficult to express why being forced to choose a bathroom can put someone at risk, the second-year law student said.
As a former legal assistant for the Transgender Rights Project at Lambda Legal, Rasdall cited the high rates of violence research shows transgender people disproportionately face.
Fournier, who recognized the video as targeted discrimination against fellow trans women, found the “No on 3” campaign’s approaches offensive.
“What’s frustrating is that this is really less about protecting children from male predators and more just about fear mongering, preventing trans people from going to the designated bathroom based on their identity,” he said. “In fact, they’re the ones who are targeted the most. They’re the ones who face the most violence. That’s the issue: It’s that society targets them and doesn’t recognize their identities.”
Rasdall and Fournier aren’t wrong.
In 2014, The Fenway Institute and The Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC) released the results of “Discrimination and Health in Massachusetts: A Statewide Survey of Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Adults,” a year-long study that grew out of The Fenway Institute’s Project VOICE, or Voicing Our Individual and Community Experiences, a research project aimed at revealing the prevalence of public discrimination that transgender people in Massachusetts experience everywhere from healthcare settings to public accommodations.
This followed the implementation of The Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act in 2012, which did not cover public accommodations at the time.
As Dunn explained, “Public accommodation means any public space, so by taking out public accommodations they basically said, ‘It’s okay for you to be trans at home, it’s okay for you to be trans at school or at work, but we don’t want to see trans people in public spaces.’”
Of the 452 Massachusetts transgender residents surveyed, over 65 percent reported discrimination in public and healthcare settings over the past 12 months, “including actions such as unfair treatment, denial of service based on gender identity or appearance, aggressive language and physical threats,” according to the study.
Question 3 does not stop that violence, but it curbs the discrimination noted in studies like that one.
“Non-discrimination laws articulate that, in this case, in any public accommodations, you cannot discriminate against anyone on the basis of their gender identity. Now, it doesn’t make discrimination as a whole go away,” Dunn said. “It just allows for someone who experiences discrimination to have the legal grounds to file a complaint or a charge against a business or other public accommodation.”
That said, awareness still seems to be a common goal.
For Rasdall, awareness begins with creating dialogue across communities. “Just listen to trans people and believe them. I think that’s a huge first step. A lot of people don’t believe transgender people when they say, ‘This is who I am.’”
Ruthstrom added, “A lot of people who aren’t part of the queer community weren’t even aware of what Question 3 was trying to do. We raise awareness for straight people to understand LGBTQ issues better, that’s definitely part of it. But, we also see our role in connecting with other LGBTQ people.”
Dunn is still inspired by the success, having facilitated the trans advocacy that resulted in it. “It was a major moment for trans rights, both when they took out public accommodations in 2011, which was the first time any state had done that in their trans non-discrimination law, and when we were the only state to pass public accommodations on its own in 2016.”
But Dunn recognizes that a lot of work continues to exist trans rights and trans visibility efforts.
“We’re working not only for legal equality, to make sure that the law exists to protect our rights and identities, but we’re really working for lived equality as well,” he said. “We need to make sure trans people not only survive but thrive in our world. This means normalizing trans identities and experiences by creating conversations about who we are now and who we have always been throughout history.”
But the accomplishment is still bittersweet for Fournier.
“People think that we’re asking for special rights or more than what the general population has. . .we’re just asking to keep the law in check so that we still have the same rights as everyone else. It’s a victory in that we got to keep it, but is it really a victory if we constantly have to maintain the rights that we gain?”
Nonetheless, he is optimistic.
“Progress is being made. Sometimes society is more forward-thinking than the law itself, which can be uplifting. Sometimes the law enforced can help society catch up. Either way, having this law encourages people to fight for more rights.”