Erica Tobias—also known as Mimi—has led a full life as a child, a spouse, a parent, and now a grandparent in Massachusetts. But for most of her life she struggled, aware of being “trapped in the wrong body.”
A proud transgender woman and activist, Tobias, 63, is among those fighting an effort to repeal the transgender protections passed in 2016 by the state’s Democratic-held legislature. If voters pass the Massachusetts Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination veto referendum in November, they would effectively cancel Senate Bill 2407 and its anti-discrimination protections. This is the first statewide ballot initiative on transgender protections in the US.
“I am the same as everyone else. Being transgender is just a small piece of who I am right now. I have children, I have a wonderful job, I do what I can to help people. I live a full life,” Tobias told Rewire.News. “It’s very upsetting that someone wants to take away rights that have already been granted to us.”
If opposition group Keep MA Safe is successful, it would set a dangerous precedent, said Kasey Suffredini, campaign co-chair of Freedom for All Massachusetts, a bipartisan campaign that supported and is defending the protections passed by lawmakers in 2016.
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“We have confidence in Massachusetts voters but we take nothing for granted,” he told Rewire.News. “Even though support for non-discrimination protections is generally high across the country, when our opponents use some of the false and misleading attacks on transgender people like we saw in the Houston fight, those tactics are actually very successful in making people uncomfortable about transgender people and those tactics can win.”
Anti-transgender activists work on “spreading misinformation” and mischaracterizing who transgender people are to forward their agenda to roll back LGBTQ rights, Suffredini said. Freedom For All is working statewide, he said, to let the electorate see and hear from transgender people to dispel those myths, and ensure that voters know a “yes” vote on November’s ballot question would preserve the protections.
While the Bay State already prohibited discrimination against transgender people in housing and employment, the new law extended transgender protections in hotels, parks, train stations, and other public spaces. That includes allowing transgender men and women to use the bathroom or locker room associated with their gender identity rather than their anatomical sex.
Discriminatory “bathroom bill” efforts have been thwarted elsewhere, most recently in Alaska. Voters in Anchorage, rejected a proposal last week to ban transgender people from using bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity. The bill mirrored legislation passed in North Carolina in 2016, which has since been partially repealed.
Keep MA Safe is leading the campaign with concerns over the privacy and safety of women and children supposedly put in danger by allowing trans people to use the restroom corresponding with their gender. The group was formed in July 2016 with support from the Massachusetts Family Institute, after Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed the anti-discrimination bill into law. Keep MA Safe makes the specious claim that the anti-discrimination law allows predators to disguise themselves as women to enter female locker rooms and restrooms and harm women even though the bathroom attack myth has been thoroughly debunked.
The anti-trans group did not respond to emails for comment. The Keep MA Safe website calls the bill’s title “misleading” and states the law “would endanger the privacy and safety of women and children in public bathrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms, and other intimate places (such as common showers), opening them to whomever wants to be there at any given time, and also to sexual predators who claim ‘confusion’ about their gender as a cover for their evil intentions.”
Mischaracterizations like these further attack a community that disproportionately faces fatal violence, especially transgender women. At least 28 transgender people were killed in the United States in 2017, according to a Human Rights Campaign count.
Tobias recalled walking through the Boston Commons to get to the state house the day the anti-discrimination legislation passed.
“It was a beautiful sunny day out and I just remember feeling euphoric that I was about to take part in history,” she said. “And the fact that I had the opportunity to work on behalf of the transgender community in communicating my story made me feel just wonderful that children would be able to grow up without feeling ashamed of who they are.”
That euphoria was short-lived, as Donald Trump, buoyed by his anti-LGBTQ backers, became president months after the law passed. Tobias said she felt “the whole country changed, filled with hate and divisiveness, reverting back to a more difficult time.”
Before she knew it, she was back to feeling scared and vulnerable as Keep MA Safe lobbied on the steps of the state house in 2017, calling for a repeal.
Growing up at a time of prejudice, Tobias said she was afraid to talk about the conflict she knew she felt and was worried that she would be institutionalized. It wasn’t until she was age 58 that she even considered transitioning.
“I felt the love I had for my wife and children was greater than any love I felt or myself. I felt that my existence was to take care of them,” she said.
When her second wife died of cancer in April 2013, Tobias said she realized she needed to lead a full life. “That meant resolving my gender identity issues and getting help from outside,” she said.
After living most of her life in conflict, Tobias decided to transition in September 2013. She started the process with counseling and hormone therapies, and underwent four surgeries. “I’m happy about the fact that I am at peace for the first time in my life,” she said.
She and her family were showcased in a Boston museum exhibit in 2015 to portray and honor families across the state.
It wasn’t an easy decision or process. Tobias staggered who she told and when, first sharing it with her two older daughters, concerned about how her youngest, age 18, would react. “This is not just an individual transition but it’s also a transition for my family, friends, and everyone who cared about me,” she said, thankful that her family was largely accepting of the change.
Among hundreds of residents who fought for trans protections, Tobias said she will continue to fight for it until the repeal effort is defeated. So far, 18 states, Washington, D.C. and 200 cities and counties nationwide have laws in place prohibiting discrimination against trans people, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
With an administration that has not stood up for LGBTQ rights, and a slew of anti-trans legislation cropping up nationwide Suffredini said, “the national political climate makes these protections more important than ever before because we can’t count right now on our central government to protect our transgender citizens who are exposed to some discrimination at the national level.”
The trans community faces a range of challenges, from the conservative strategy to misrepresent transgender people and the Trump administration’s efforts to ban them from the military to the struggle for health-care access. Trans-rights advocates said they should not have to fight for basic rights in a state that has historically paved the way for progressive legislation like accessible health care and marriage equality.
“As a state that has really prided itself on being at the forefront of civil rights, on being a place where everybody is welcome, this is a really important chance both to ensure that transgender people are legally protected, and to send the message that they are welcome and are okay,” Suffredini said.
A major hurdle is that many people don’t have the opportunity to see, be with, and learn about who transgender people are and what they are like so they can’t be misled by the inaccuracies advanced by the opposition, he said. That’s something the Freedom for All Massachusetts campaign is trying to change. Tobias’ story is one of several it has shared.
Most cisgender people don’t think of their gender much—it’s just who they are. “But I will tell you that when you’re in the wrong gender, it’s all you can think about,” Tobias said. “Now I’ve kind of grown up into my new normal but I never take for granted who I am and where I came from. I have a deep appreciation for being able to become the woman that I am today.”