KATHY: Today we’ve got a story from Nancy producer Matt Collette, who seems to have been out of the office QUITE A BIT lately.
TOBIN: He’s been reporting from Massachusetts, where next month voters will decide whether to repeal or uphold protections for trans people.
TOBIN: We were planning to run this story this week anyway, but now it feels extra relevant with last week’s news that the Trump administration may be looking to essentially stop recognizing the existence of trans and gender non-conforming people.
KATHY: Which is so sad and scary because trans rights are already so delicate all over the United States. They vary from state to state, and what protections did exist at the federal level are increasingly under threat.
TOBIN: So today we bring you a story about a new way people are fighting for trans rights. And if it works in Massachusetts, it’s a strategy that could be a game-changer all over the country.
VOX: From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy!
VOX: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
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DEE: Good morning I’m looking for Beatrice or Joseph.
BEATRICE: Yeah… Joe’s out.
DEE: Oh that’s fine. My name’s Dee. I’m with the Yes on 3 Campaign, which is the campaign to protect transgender equality in Massachusetts.
MATT: It’s a Saturday afternoon, and like she’s been doing almost every weekend this year, Dee Rogers is going door to door. Today she’s in Quincy, just outside of Boston. The weather is warm and sunny so, no surprise, lots of people aren’t home. And the people who are home are full of excuses. Like they’re on the phone, or they don’t vote, or they’re busy with the kids.
DEE: We’re talking to people in Quincy today about an important issue that’s going to be on the ballot this coming election. So in November we’re all going to have to vote on whether we’re going to protect non-discrimination protections for transgender people in public places including restrooms and locker rooms. If that election were to happen today would you vote yes to keep those protections or vote no to repeal them?
BEATRICE: I guess no to repeal them.
MATT: Beatrice reminds me of the old Catholic ladies I used to see when I visited my mom’s family near Quincy. The kind of lady who might have a single Coors Light while her husband watches the Pats game, or in this case, a boxing match, which is playing in the background.
DEE: Got it. And can I ask why that is, like what’s sort of made up your mind on that issue?
BEATRICE: It’s just that I think everyone has their own right to live and how they wanna choose to live it is no one else’s business.
DEE: Oh got it. Actually I should be clear. Voting yes would keep these non-discrimination protections in place. We already have them today.
BEATRICE: Oh okay.
DEE: And voting no would get rid of the protections. Does that make sense?
DEE: So you would vote yes?
MATT: Question 3 is the kind of thing you see on a ballot and have to read a few times to make sure you don’t vote for the wrong side. So let me just spell it out for you here: Voting “no” means you want to repeal public accommodations protections for trans people. Voting “yes” means you want to keep them. Dee is trying to get people to vote yes.
DEE: You would vote yes to keep non-discrimination protections.
DEE: Got it. [LAUGHS] And would you say probably yes or definitely yes.
BEATRICE: Definitely yes.
DEE: Definitely yes. Got it. Thank you very much. I appreciate your support.
MATT: It’s kind of incredible to watch Dee in action. She’s like this charismatic steamroller: Polite and friendly, but once she gets going, it’s hard for people to exit the conversation. The instant someone answers the door she starts talking. Dee is really good at canvassing but I don’t get the sense she thinks of herself as political. Instead this is deeply personal work. She’s going door to door basically asking people to support her right to exist in the world. And she’s talking to people who have maybe never met anyone like her before.
DEE: I’m transgender myself. The story I like to tell is that when I transitioned, I stopped going to the movies for a while, because at the movies, like, if you’re there for a few hours, you’re probably going to have to use the bathroom at some point. And that became a very scary experience. So having this law in the books has made it a lot easier for me and I know it’s made it a lot easier for transgender people who are just beginning to transition now. So thank you very much.
BEATRICE: Oh you’re welcome, no problem.
MATT: Everything about this conversation has been pretty normal so far, and it seems to be going well for Dee. But all that...it’s not the reason I’m tagging along. I’m here for what happens next.
DEE: Um, I wanted to ask. I know this is an issue that’s been getting a lot of attention lately in, like, the press and just sort of in general. Have you heard anything like in the news or on social media or in a face to face conversation that’s given you any hesitation or doubt about your vote?
DEE: Got it. There are some states some folks who are talking about this issue on both sides of it, including those who are opposed. And I’ve heard some people bring up concerns about safety and privacy in restrooms and locker rooms. And they say that the law would sort of allow men to follow women to places. And there’s actually, uh, in another state they made an ad just about this.
MATT: Dee takes out a tablet computer, hits play on a video, and hands it to Beatrice. And in an instant, the mood completely changes.
[CLIP] AD: Sexual predators in women’s bathrooms. Think it can’t happen? Think again… [FADES UNDER]
MATT: So a minute ago Beatrice was going to vote yes—definitely yes. But now, just 10 seconds into this attack ad, the look on her face makes me wonder: What if this ad changes her mind?
MATT: I’m not from Massachusetts but my whole family is from there so I’m basically from Massachusetts.
MATT: My first baseball game was at Fenway Park with my grandfather. I went to college in Boston, came out there, got my first journalism job there. A couple months ago I came across a story that totally surprised me. A group of anti-LGBT activists, who call themselves Keep Massachusetts Safe, managed to get a question on the ballot for this November’s election. It’s called Question 3 and it’s about whether voters want to repeal a law that protects trans people from discrimination in public places. And I just remember being so caught off guard by this. Anti-LGBT ballot initiatives aren’t that common anymore. This one is the only statewide ballot question like it anywhere in the country right now.
MATT: Ten or fifteen years ago, you’d see them a lot. It was a Republican tactic to get diehard conservatives to the polls. The theory was they’d be so opposed to something like gay marriage that they’d show up to vote, and while they were there, they’d check the box for whatever Republican was running. The other reason I was shocked is because this is Massachusetts! One of the most liberal states in the country. The birthplace of the Kennedys, the first state to allow gay marriage. Its health care system was the inspiration for Obamacare.
KELLY: I moved up here from Tennessee four years ago because I wanted to find peace and acceptability and be allowed to be my authentic self and explore that without fear of repercussions from society, from churches, from employers, from what happens in Tennessee.
MATT: This is Kelly Jenkins. The two things she says are most central to her identity are being a trans woman and being a teacher. But in Tennessee, she found she couldn’t be either.
KELLY: I literally packed my four door Honda Civic with my two dogs, my cat, anything I could shove in my Honda Civic, and moved up here not knowing a soul. And in three weeks of living in Massachusetts I found a home and I found a job. And I've never really looked back.
MATT: Until this year, when she started to hear the same rhetoric she remembered from Tennessee.
[CLIP] AD: What does Massachusetts Question 3 mean to you? 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.
MATT: This is an ad that’s currently airing in Massachusetts. And the world it describes seems so far from Kelly’s actual experiences.
KELLY: I know of no trans person that has ever had any experience, I know of no human being that has ever had the experience that they are describing, that has happened. It's not happened in Massachusetts. It's like saying The sky is green instead of blue when you can look up and see it's blue. And that's what they're trying to do. They're trying to convince you that I'm evil when you can sit here and sit down with me and see that I'm not.
MATT: These ads are full of things that just aren’t true. Plus they tend to feel less like high-minded political discourse and more like low-budget horror movies.
[CLIP] AD: [GASP, SCARY MUSIC] Vote no on 3. This bathroom bill puts our privacy and safety at risk. It goes too far.
MATT: No matter how ridiculous these ads are, they keep showing up every time trans rights come up for debate. And they immediately transform a conversation about non-discrimination laws into one about “bathroom bills.” One reason these ads work is because most people have never met a trans person. A recent study said just over a third of Americans know one. Which might seem really low to you, but remember you’re the kind of person listening to a queer podcast from a New York City public radio station. That lack of knowing even a single trans person means most people don’t have a baseline understanding of what it means to be trans. They might mean well. They might be the kind of person who says, “Of course everyone deserves to be treated equally.” But in reality, a lot of people just don’t know what it means to be trans. And that means they’re more likely to be afraid of trans people. And you know, quoting Yoda here, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to the Dark Side,” which in the case would be voting against equal rights for trans people. And that’s why these ads are so dangerous. I know that sounds pretty extreme. But activists consider ads like these a very real threat. The Yes on 3 campaign has raised nearly $4 million, much of that from big national LGBT groups. The theory is that if these protections fall in Massachusetts, they're vulnerable just about anywhere. So it didn’t surprise me the people trying to repeal these protections are flooding the airwaves with these gross ads. What did surprise me, though, is how the other side is using them too.
TRAINER 1: Let's talk about goals.
TRAINER 2: Okay. Our goals are for each person to knock on 30 doors and to have four conversations today. Obviously for each person we speak with, we want to have a full conversation with them, um, making sure that they will definitely vote yes on 3, if possible. You can't win them all, but try to make that effort at each door.
MATT: Each Yes on 3 canvas begins with an hourlong training in exactly the kind of place you’d expect. This one’s is in the basement of the United First Parish Church, which, fun fact, is where Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams are buried.
TRAINER 1: So here are some tips for you as you're heading out to turf. One is be tenacious! Which means keep going. And if someone comes to the door assume that they are at least interested enough to come to the door, so don't give them that space to say no, or to say I'm busy. So instead of saying, “do you have time,” just launch into your script.
TRAINER 2: Also, when I'm at the door, I like to ring the doorbell and knock. I find it makes it more likely for people to come to the door, and not everyone has a working doorbell.
MATT: Now a demonstration of how all this works. Playing the role of friendly neighborhood canvasser is Dee Rogers, the person from Beatrice’s doorstep.
[KNOCKING ON CLIPBOARD]
LINDA: Yeah, who is it?
DEE: Hi, is Linda there?
LINDA: Yeah, this is Linda.
MATT: The conversation hits a couple familiar beats: How will you vote on the question? Probably or definitely? Do you know a trans person? Then...
DEE: In other states there's actually an ad just about this, and I'd like to show you this short video.
DEE [TO VOLUNTEERS]: I would show the video.
MATT: The campaign has a name for this part of the conversation: they call it “inoculation.” It’s a word you’re more likely to hear in medical science than in political science. The idea is that by exposing people to these ads before they encounter them in the wild, you’re inoculating them against their effects.
MATT: I am fascinated by this approach, because the whole thing just seems so counterintuitive. But it might be exactly what the queer rights movement needs. Regular “get out the vote” campaigns don’t always work when it comes to LGBT issues. Time after time, we’ve seen the majority vote against minority rights. Think of Prop 8, the California ballot question about gay marriage that happened 10 years ago. It was a major setback for gay marriage, and that loss forced a reckoning over how you win support for LGBT issues at the ballot box. So with trans rights increasingly under attack, I think it’s promising to have a strategy like this. But not everyone is convinced.
VOLUNTEER: I guess I'm still confused as to why we're bringing up our opposition’s points? I've done a lot of canvassing and that's not something I've ever really encountered before. Especially like showing their video. It seems counterproductive to me.
TRAINER 2: Well, it's true, it is a different style than most canvassing. Our goal is to help draw out their concerns and that's what the video is there for. Because one video can't make someone transphobic. But it can help them feel comfortable expressing transphobia or ignorance they already have. And we want them to do that. We want them to bring those ideas out there because the more that those fears are out in public, the more they diminish. That's how it always happens with fears and ignorance.
TRAINER 1: It's hard to change someone's mind on a specific concern if you don't know what that concern is. And this is a way to find out what their real concern might be.
MATT: How inoculation works in practice is you show voters an attack ad. Then you talk through their questions and anxieties. You’re patient. You’re processing it together. And you hope that at the end of all this, they’ve developed an immunity to transphobia. The best analogy I can think of is that it’s like getting a flu shot. But in this case you’re not inoculating against a disease. You’re inoculating against an idea.
KATHY: That and more, after the break.
MATT: The theory behind inoculation, the whole reason it’s being deployed right now in Massachusetts, is that its effects are long-lasting in ways other campaign strategies just aren’t.
DAVID: So you're basically giving people the tools to resist these kinds of transphobic attacks.
MATT: This is David Broockman.
DAVID: And I'm a Professor of Political Economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Um, I study public opinion and political campaigns in the United States.
MATT: David’s research is the basis of the Yes on 3 campaign’s inoculation strategy. He and his colleague Josh Kalla studied a similar canvassing campaign in Miami back in 2015.
DAVID: We found that even months after the conversation—when we exposed people to opposition advertisements different ads than had been discussed at the door—the treatment group essentially was more likely to retain a positive attitude towards the transgender people and towards these policies than the control group that hadn't had the conversations.
MATT: David got his start working on campaigns while he was just in high school, door-knocking for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.
DAVID: I was there for the famous scream actually.
MATT: In college, David studied politics, but he pretty quickly found himself disenchanted with the state of campaign theory.
DAVID: There's a lot of gurus in politics who assert confidently lots of pronouncements about how to win campaigns, persuade voters, whatever else. And those people were basically completely full of shit, and were sort of similar to 18th century doctors that had a few anecdotes and would say, “Oh well I put leeches on Mary and Mary got better,” you know, “Don't you want to pay me a lot of money so I can put leeches on you, too?”
MATT: Now, David conducts experiments to see how campaigns actually work—what makes them effective, what might be a waste of time, what really changes people’s minds.
DAVID: Essentially clinical trials for politics.
MATT: You start with a theory, and you test it out.
DAVID: People are more likely to effortfully process through something if they feel uncertain about it or if they're not sure on what side they are.
DAVID: So when they start the conversation, if you just say, "Oh yeah of course I am going to vote yes," even though we know many of them will later vote no, then they don't have any motivation to think about this, ‘cause they're like, “I've already made my decision, why are you here? Why am I thinking about this?” But then if they realize, "Oh wait a minute, actually there's good arguments on both sides maybe, I'm not sure what I think." Now all of a sudden you've increased this motivation to think through the topic, which is exactly the kind of premise of how you'd have this lasting change.
MATT: David calls this “active processing,” which basically means people are thinking about the complexities of an issue. It’s like the difference between going to a lecture class and a seminar. In one, you zone out. But in the other, you’re forced to engage. But the thing is, this is all very new research, and David doesn’t yet know which part of these conversations is the part that’s driving the message home in a lasting way. It might be the personal connection. It might be showing the attack ad. It might be time spent, not reading from a script, patience, politeness, any number of different things.
DAVID: And so we don't know which of the ingredients are really necessary for the secret sauce so to speak and which are extraneous.
MATT: We’re back in Quincy, where David’s theory is playing out on Beatrice’s front steps. And we’re at the part of the conversation where things could go south very quickly. Dee is just about done showing the attack ad.
[CLIP] AD: Keep men out of women’s bathrooms and locker rooms. Vote no.
MATT: Even though I know why this is happening, I’m still nervous it’s all going to backfire. Dee, meanwhile, is super chill.
DEE: Thank you for watching. So I'm curious, like, what did you think about that? Does it raise any concerns for you?
BEATRICE: No, but in a way, not to offend transgender people, and whatever you want to call us, it would be better for both sides to have their own bathroom.
BEATRICE: So, in other words, you people aren’t gonna be criticized, or whatever, name-calling or whatever they want to do. And the other people will just be able to keep their mouth shut.
DEE: Right, I hear what you're saying. So you're sort of saying that, like, it's almost like transgender people should have their own place to go just so they can kinda be spared from people who might have a problem with it.
BEATRICE: Well, the bathrooms.
BEATRICE: If you're going out to eat, no there should be no problem.
BEATRICE: At all. But I think in places like that, so the transgender doesn't get upset or so somebody doesn't start yelling or screaming for police or whatever.
DEE: Right. Um, that's a really interesting perspective and I don't think I've ever heard it phrased quite that way before. It makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways…
MATT: See, this is what I’m talking about. Beatrice does not sound like a “definitely yes” anymore. She seems undecided. I know this was Dee’s plan, but it’s making me very uncomfortable.
DEE: Something that, um, something that's complicated about it I think is that there are a lot of transgender people who you wouldn't know are transgender walking down the street, if you know what I mean? And so it's a little, um, I think it gets a little dicey sort of where you draw the line…
MATT: They go back and forth.
MATT: Beatrice says maybe trans people should get their own bathrooms. Dee’s like, that is certainly something that’s helped me personally. But separate bathrooms aren’t always available, and trans people need to be safe wherever they go. Beatrice says she doesn't want see people discriminated against. She says she used to be a nurse, and that she would have never refused to see a patient if they were transgender. But also, she says, ever since she was a little kid, boys and girls had different bathrooms, and there’s gotta be reason for that. Dee says right, but it’s still illegal for anyone to go into a bathroom to commit a crime, period.
MATT: On top of all that, Massachusetts hasn’t seen an increase in bathroom crime since these protections became law. It’s just not a thing that happens. But Beatrice is still waffling. It seems like this conversation is going in circles.
BEATRICE: I don’t want to humiliate anybody.
DEE: Say again?
BEATRICE: I don't want to humiliate anybody.
MATT: “I don’t want to humiliate anybody.”
DEE: Yeah, right? I think that's a lot of what it's about, that it's easy to forget, right, that it is just about people's ability to move through the world freely with dignity. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Great, well, thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Beatrice. I really appreciate it.
MATT: It’s been about nine minutes since we knocked on Beatrice’s door. That’s a pretty long time to have a deep personal conversation with a stranger.
DEE: After everything we've talked about and viewing the video, I want to just sort of ask again the question I started with, which is when our non-discrimination law’s on the ballot, will you vote yes to keep these protections or vote no to repeal them.
DEE: You'll vote yes. And will you say definitely yes or probably yes?
BEATRICE: I'll vote yes.
DEE: Alright, thank you..
BEATRICE: Everybody has their own right to live and how they want to live it is their business. Nobody else’s business.
MATT: “Everybody has their own right to live and how they want to live it is their business. Nobody else’s business.” That was the last thing Beatrice’s told Dee.
MATT: So here’s my question: Has Beatrice been inoculated? Dee is marking her down as a “definitely yes.” But I’m not so sure. I watched about a dozen of these conversations go down.
MATT: And I walked away from most of them feeling hopeful. Like these people would vote yes on election day. Beatrice was different. On the one hand she was willing to engage. But she also seemed more or less confused the whole time. I’m not convinced she’d ever thought about transgender people before today. Or that she’ll ever think about them again. I have no idea what she’ll do at the polling station, if she even votes at all. To me, she seems like a “definitely…maybe.”
MATT: How do you feel that went?
DEE: It went well. What she was saying about having different restrooms for transgender people, like the words separate but equal crossed through my head and that's not really necessarily the right argument to bring to her because, you know, we don't want to be too confrontational while we're doing this work. ‘Cause we can't bring somebody all the way. But she was somebody...she was a nice lady, definitely a good conversation.
MATT: At the start of the summer, 52 percent of Massachusetts voters said they’d uphold the state’s protections for trans people. Which meant there was still a lot of uncertainty about how Question 3 would go. Would people actually vote? Would they even know this question was going to be on the ballot? Kasey Suffredini lives that uncertainty every day.
KASEY: I already can feel the sensitivity, the not knowing. You know when you're walking down the street and thinking to yourself is this person going to vote with me or against me.
MATT: Kasey is co-chair of the Yes on 3 campaign and President of Strategy at the campaign’s national parent organization, Freedom for All Americans. He says victory isn’t just about making sure people know this question is on the ballot. Instead it’s about making sure voters feel some sort of personal connection to the people it affects.
KASEY: For a lot of people who aren't as close to this issue, it may feel like a policy fight or a political fight, but it's not. It's not about those things. It's about people. And I want to wake up on November 7th and walk down the street and know that more than one in two of every people I see voted to uphold, you know, dignity and respect for me. That's important.
MATT: This idea that just half of the people Kasey encounters on any given day would vote to uphold basic rights for him…that’s hard to square with a place that’s supposed to feel like home.
KASEY: I grew up, you know, feeding the ducks on Spy Pond in Stoneham with my grandfather. We would go to the Hilltop Steakhouse on Route 1, you know, to celebrate report cards and graduations. I went to my first baseball game at Fenway Park with my dad. I buried my dad in a cemetery in Malden. I scattered my mom off the coast of Massachusetts. Those were all public places. Those are all places that this law ensures I'm able to be. And so what's at stake for me and other transgender people and the people that love us is whether or not we're still gonna be welcome in the place that we call home.
MATT: When I was up in Boston, I wound up hanging out with some friends who still live there. I told everyone about the story I was working on, how close things were looking, and wasn’t that weird in a place like this? My friends weren’t actually all that surprised, though. Because everyone there was queer, and every one had a story of being singled out because of who they were. It might be a family member, or a stranger at a bar, or someone who shouted out “faggot” as they walked down the street. Because even with its liberal reputation, Massachusetts isn’t a paradise. But it can be a refuge, and that didn’t happen by accident. It happened because judges and lawmakers and regular people like you and me decided to look out for our friends, our neighbors, for people we’d never even met before.
MATT: That was a couple months ago, and things are looking better now. With just over a week to go, the yes side is polling above 70 percent. I never did hear back from the No side. I put in requests with the Keep Massachusetts Safe campaign and its parent organization, the Massachusetts Family Institute. Neither one returned my calls or emails.
MATT: A couple weeks back, though, I did get something from the Vote No side: an email newsletter. I’d signed up because it seemed like the only way I was going to get their point of view. This email promised “multiple examples of abuses of this law from across the continent and many right here in Massachusetts.”
MATT: This would be big news, because nobody else has been able to prove that’s been happening. So I clicked the link…and got an error message: 404, page not found. There was nothing to see.
TOBIN: Alright, that’s our show…
KATHY: We’ve put links with more information and resources in the show notes.
TOBIN: Let’s do the credits.
KATHY: Our producer…
TOBIN: Matt Collette!
KATHY: Production fellow…
TOBIN: Temi Fagbenle!
KATHY: Sound designer…
TOBIN: Jeremy Bloom!
TOBIN: Jenny Lawton!
KATHY: Executive producer…
TOBIN: Paula Szuchman!
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]