“Transgender could be defined out of existence by Trump administration” read the headline on the New York Times story from Monday, reporting on a leaked memo that showed the Department of Health and Human Services was seeking to define gender on a “biological basis”. On Wednesday, the Justice Department argued to the Supreme Court that discrimination against workers on the basis of their gender identity would not be illegal.
These moves follow a 2017 move banning transgender people from serving in the military, a move opposed by 73 percent of Americans in a CNN poll taken late last year. There is no public polling yet on the idea of undermining the very idea of transgender identity, as the concept was not in the public space until just this week.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts voters seem poised to send the opposite message. In 2016, state lawmakers added “gender identity” to the list of characteristics protected from discrimination in public accommodations. The law paved the way for the protection of transgender individuals in public spaces such as restaurants, parks, beaches, or bathrooms.
The Trump administration’s plans may further highlight a key policy difference tension between Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Republican Senate challenger State Rep. Geoff Diehl. Baker, who signed the 2016 legislation into law and donated to Yes on 1, has come out against the Trump administration’s position. Diehl, meanwhile, defended the “no” position in his debate against Warren last week, before the Times story about the leaked memo.
Opponents of the law initiated what is now Question 3 on the November ballot. Early polling by WBUR and Suffolk found the “yes” side leading, but only slightly. More recent polling has shown Yes on 3 comfortably ahead, as the campaign has heated up, and more voters have focused on the question. The issue of transgender rights is somewhat newer and less familiar for many voters, meaning more voters were open to persuasion. For similar reasons, it is likely that opinion will remain fluid for the near future.
Just 37 percent of Americans say they know someone who is transgender, compared to 87 percent who knew someone gay or lesbian in a 2013 Pew poll. This sort of personal contact matters. A 2017 Pew survey found that Americans who knew someone transgender were 21 points more likely to think society had not gone far enough in accepting transgender people than those who didn’t. Support for same-sex marriage grew over time, significantly through increased personal familiarity.
When the Trump administration takes public positions, it has often had the effect of strengthening and polarizing public opinion. We’ll know in less than two weeks what effect, if any, Trump has on Question 3.