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The Man Who’s Helping Defend Trans Issues at the Ballot in 2018

Recently, Reuters estimated that at least 40 trans people are running for government office this year, a groundbreaking figure compared to past elections. The most famous of these trans candidates, of course, is Chelsea Manning, who has filed for a U.S. Senate bid in Maryland and who wrote about political agency in the first piece she published after former President Barack Obama commuted her 35-year sentence for giving classified information to Wikileaks: “We need to stop asking them to give us our rights. We need to stop hoping that our systems will right themselves. We need to actually take the reins of government and fix our institutions. We need to save lives by making change at every level.”

To better understand the agenda of these candidates as well the trans-related issues on the ballot in 2018, I caught up with Mason Dunn, the executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. His state is a particularly interesting test case because back in 2011, he and his colleagues secured civil protections and equity measures for trans constituents through a legislative process. But even after the scope of these protections was extended in 2016, their opposition has since organized and called for a referendum on the legislation in November.

Here’s what he had to say about that battle; why cis women are just as complicit in dehumanizing trans people as cis dudes; and how Manning’s campaign platform has the potential to transcend gender identity, a privilege the public often denies trans candidates.

As a trans man and longtime organizer for LGBTQ rights, how has the proliferation of trans representation in the media impacted your experiences organizing for transgender rights in Massachusetts over the last five years?
It definitely doesn’t look like when I started in 2005. Early on, while facilitating the same style of Trans 101 workshops I do now, there was a lot of work required just to get over the hurdle of explaining what transgender means. These days, it’s less about doing that basic education and almost more re-educating in some ways — mostly in terms of getting past the mystique or stereotypes of trans identities and getting into discussions that are less binary, as well as thinking about trans men as much as trans women. Because a lot of people are more familiar with the notion of transgender women than they are transgender men or non-binary people.

So while the media piece has been a huge benefit for overall public awareness, the climate trans folks experience hasn’t changed as positively as one would think. The sense of equality we feel has improved a little bit, but at least for some of us, the safety issues have only gotten worse. We’re currently seeing an increase in assaults and murders of trans people, as well as continued increases in discrimination. The real end goal then for myself and my colleagues is to decrease the number of murders, assaults and discriminatory situations, and we aren’t there yet.

What’s so significant about the transgender rights ballot initiative you’re working on in Massachusetts right now?
Well, we first passed nondiscrimination protections in employment, housing, education and credit/lending through a legislative process in 2011. Then in 2016, we added public accommodations, meaning places that are open to the general public, such as stores, restaurants, hospitals, and government buildings, and facilities inside those buildings. Unfortunately, our opposition was successful in gathering enough signatures to put those rights back on the ballot as a referendum. So that’s where a lot of our political capital and advocacy work is focused right now, educating people about why transgender people deserve these rights and making sure the law we passed remains the law.

As of right now, though, Massachusetts will be the first state to have a statewide ballot initiative on transgender rights in the country. It looks like we’ll be the first in this next hurdle for LGBTQ rights, once again, as we were the first with gay marriage. It’s a turning point. This victory will be the first time we will win for trans rights at a statewide ballot. It will stand as a signal to the country that the voters support trans rights. However, we were certainly not at the forefront of passing those rights to begin with — 17 states and Washington D.C. had already passed similar legislation.

Were you surprised by the mobilization of your opposition?
No, because the signatures required for a referendum vote constitute less than 1 percent of the voting population of the state. That’s a very low bar, so I’m not surprised it qualified, although it did so narrowly.

Having organized all over the country, how do your experiences on both coasts compare?
The geographic element can be funny. Having lived and worked in California through Prop 8 [which successfully eliminated the right for same-sex couples to marry], there was this assumption, “Oh, we’re California. Of course, we’re going to validate these rights at the ballot.” But then we lost. My concern, especially with the gay marriage legacy in mind, is that people in Massachusetts will be lulled into that same sense of complacency. We can’t rely on the idea of being a progressive state to achieve this win in November. We can’t rest on those laurels.

You’re written that your opponents use fear-mongering techniques to mislead voters. How so?
The lies typically revolve around “concerns for safety” focusing on women and girls, however the fact is these laws don’t allow men into women’s spaces. They ensure that trans women have access to women’s spaces. Here are some examples of the ads they run:

The lies in these ads revolve around the notion that privacy is at stake when it’s not.

Since MEL is a men’s magazine, it seems worth noting that a lot of the violence transgender people experiences seems to be inflicted by cis men.
Well, the murder of trans people is oftentimes perpetuated by cisgender men. The most violent incidents seem to come down to cisgender men. But in general, a lot of the discriminatory acts transgender people experience happen in segregated spaces, like restaurant bathrooms and locker rooms. We see a lot of discrimination and more subtle acts of violence perpetrated by cisgender women in those spaces, so it’s not as though cisgender men are the sole perpetrators of discrimination.

In terms of outside of Massachusetts, I assume you were happy last year when Danica Roem became the first openly transgender person to be elected to the Virginia House of Delegates?
Of course. Danica’s win was great. There were so many trans candidates who won in the last election. That was really exciting to see. As an individual, I’m excited to see her candidacy and for this entire new wave of trans candidates and elected officials.

What do you think about Chelsea Manning’s campaign for Senator? Beyond her gender identity, what do you think she represents for American politics?
As a trans person, I’m so excited to see any trans candidate run, especially when they really disrupt the status quo. Chelsea in particular brings a lot of great conversations to that election — especially from a national security perspective and a transparency in government perspective. Those are conversations that need to be had. Not only is she a trans person who will bring visibility to trans issues, but her larger platform will help people stop seeing trans people just as trans people, and instead see them as members of the public who have perspectives to add to many other issues beyond gender identity.