Ben Downing: A Place To Start

Sep 13, 2018

In 2012 and 2016, I joined with my colleagues to expand protections under Massachusetts hate crimes laws to our transgender neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members. Those two yes votes were some of my proudest in 10 years in the Senate. This fall those protections and progress will be on the line at the ballot box.

Massachusetts is strongest when every resident of the Commonwealth has the ability to make the most of their God given talents. That has been the driving premise behind every major social reform. It’s at the core of who were are. Whether it was education advancements, expanded access to healthcare, marriage equality or countless other steps, we have recognized that the more residents who can bring the full complement of their talents to our communities, the stronger we are as community.

That spirit recognized, both in 2012 and 2016, that we could not say to the 33,000 transgender residents of Massachusetts that we had done everything we could to allow them to participate fully and without fear. Prior to legislative action, signed into law by Governor Patrick and Governor Baker, transgender individuals could be discriminated against simply because of who they are. They could be denied housing, workplace protection and most recently access to public accommodations. In short, they could be discriminated against while seeking work, seeking a home and trying to get in between the two. How can you participate fully, if at all, in your community when that is the case? And more importantly, what does it say about how your community values you if they allow to be discriminated in such a pervasive manner?

Families of transgender individuals, transgender advocates, women’s & children’s rights groups, public safety groups, business leaders and others brought these questions and others to their the legislature. They won important protections for their fellow citizens and in so doing reaffirmed what’s best about Massachusetts. They were successful, first, because there is a compelling case for the need for these protections. Transgender individuals experience higher rates of poverty, homelessness and far higher rates of suicide than the general population. Those facts and many others can be directly tied to discrimination experienced without any avenue for protection.

The coalition was also successful because, to steal a turn of phrase, they went high while opponents went low. The following are a few public accommodations none of which you will hear those who want to repeal these protections discuss - inn, hotel, motel, shelter, elevator, public transit, taxis, ride hailing services, airports, gas station, garage, shopping malls, restaurants, barber shops, highways, theater, music hall, library, government offices. Opponents focus on other public accommodations to stoke fear. Their efforts failed in the legislature and I am hopeful they will fail with the public.

Former Governor Deval Patrick is fond of saying we need to stop shouting our anger and whispering our kindness, and reverse the two. Question 3 is a great place to start this fall.

Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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