This November, Massachusetts voters will consider Question 3, a referendum on whether to retain a 2016 law protecting transgender people from discrimination in public places. Opponents of the law — who call themselves “Keep MA Safe” — have unveiled their first ad of the campaign season, and it regurgitates all of the same demonizing “bathroom safety” tropes from past fights against trans equality.
Unlike previous anti-trans ads, which focused on children, the “No on 3” ad instead shows an adult woman making use of a women’s locker room. A creepy cisgender man is already waiting in the bathroom stall, eyeing her as she undresses and letting out a guttural moan. “What does Massachusetts Question 3 mean to you?” the ad asks. “It means any man who says he is a woman can enter a women’s locker room, dressing room, or bathroom at any time — even convicted sex offenders.”
The ad goes on to claim that women who complain to authorities about someone suspicious in the bathroom will themselves be arrested and fined up to $50,000. “This bathroom bill puts our safety at risk,” the ad concludes. “It goes too far.”
The facts of the ad are nonsense. As a recent academic study — and many analyses before it — concluded, there is zero evidence to suggest that protecting transgender people from discrimination in any way makes facilities less safe for women and children. It just doesn’t happen.
Likewise, the claim that women will be punished for reporting suspicious activity seems to be invented out of whole cloth. None of the laws related to discrimination dictate fines more than a few thousand dollars, and that’s for actual discriminatory acts. Even false reporting of a crime only results in fines up to $500 under Massachusetts law.
No on 3’s new ad follows in a long line of very similar ads portraying transgender protections as threats to safety. A previous version of the ad showed a young girl using a restroom as a man entered her stall. It first appeared in the 2015 fight over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, and was later recycled in North Carolina and in a campaign against Target for its trans-inclusive policies.
A 2012 ad against LGBTQ protections in Anchorage, Alaska (also recycled in later campaigns), shows animated gym owner Steve, who would be “forced to open the women’s locker room to anyone who claims a female identity.” It also includes the same warning about how Steve could be fined or jailed if he doesn’t comply.
Another version of the trope dates back as far as 2008. That version of the ad, also used in multiple campaigns, shows a playground scene with another creepy guy following a young girl into the women’s restroom. Here’s a version of that ad that attacked the Gainesville, Florida City Commission for protecting transgender people from discrimination.
The message of the ad hasn’t changed in over a decade — nor has the lie at its core — though it has certainly gotten more menacing with each passing rendition. But that’s because for many voters, the scare tactic still works. Even in a blue state like Massachusetts, polling has been relatively split on Question 3.
Proponents of keeping the protections are vastly outspending their opponents, and they are capitalizing on research showing that transgender visibility can reduce transphobia and increase support for transgender equality. Their ads primarily show transgender people — including transgender kids — discussing their experiences and the importance of the law.
Nevertheless, the campaign itself, along with its demonizing ads, will likely have damaging effects on the mental health of transgender people across the state.