Metro

Transgender ballot activists make their pitch: ‘I’m a human being’

From left, Kathleen Monahan, Dee Rogers, and Leo Austin-Spooner set out on an evening of canvassing in Roxbury.
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe
From left, Kathleen Monahan, Dee Rogers, and Leo Austin-Spooner set out on an evening of canvassing in Roxbury.

QUINCY — The 80-year-old man swaggered out of his backyard shed with a putty knife in hand, a tattoo peeking out from beneath his right sleeve. He was busy refinishing the porch on his 1897 house, which was draped by an American flag and marked with a yard sign for Geoffrey Diehl, the conservative challenger to liberal Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Dee Rogers hadn’t noticed the sign before approaching; later she expressed relief that she hadn’t. She has learned that party affiliation doesn’t always correlate with acceptance of people like herself, a transgender woman campaigning for her rights on the Nov. 6 ballot. And this man, while stoic and inscrutable, was willing to listen.

In a twist on the traditional political canvass — in which volunteers knock on voters’ doors to pitch a political cause or candidate — many of the people out campaigning this election year are the cause. Transgender individuals are visiting key neighborhoods to drum up support for Question 3, the ballot question that will determine whether a 2016 state law continues to protect them from discrimination in such public places as restaurants and restrooms.

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As such, they find themselves personally lobbying not for some abstract political ideology but for the circumstances by which they get through their daily lives: where they’ll shop, where they’ll eat, where they will go to the bathroom.

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On a recent sunny Saturday, several transgender people were among the 14 volunteers who fanned out across Quincy to lobby for a yes vote on Question 3. Rejection was common.

One voter frowned on the transgender rights law, telling a volunteer: “I’m a father. I want to protect my kids.” On other porches, the canvassers got cold shoulders or tepid support, as well as firm commitments to vote yes. By day’s end, after knocking on 310 doors and engaging in 131 conversations, they felt they had made transgender rights tangible for voters who might have, until that day, only considered them in the abstract.

“A lot of people don’t know transgender people,” said Rogers. “Just sort of getting face-to-face with people a lot of the time can make a big difference. ‘I’m here, I’m a human being.’ ”

Rogers, who began transitioning two years ago, wore a sweater and jeans, purple Converse sneakers, lipstick, and a bit of stubble. She did not begin by saying she’s transgender, but she made a point of mentioning it in the second phase of her pitch.

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Targeting the city’s Adams Shore neighborhood, a narrow peninsula with streets named for such birds as Albatross, Pelican, and Mallard, she approached houses with limited information about the occupants: name, age, address, and party affiliation. The houses had been selected by the Freedom for All Massachusetts campaign based on demographic data and the voters’ perceived potential to be swayed.

On any given Saturday leading up to the campaign, about 40 to 50 people canvass in cities and towns considered key to the campaign, including Quincy, Lowell, Worcester, Springfield, Fall River, and Northampton, according to campaign spokesman Matthew Wilder.

Rogers announced herself with a friendly knock — “tap-tap-taptaptap” — and tried to demonstrate, through each of her gestures, that she was not a threat. The volunteers see themselves as ambassadors of sorts, and they tolerate debate, personal questions, and sometimes an ill-phrased comment. Their goal is to engage people, to get them thinking — not to police remarks for political correctness.

“If somebody is sort of willing to get into it with me, I don’t mind as long as they’re decent, not cruel,” Rogers told the Globe. “I don’t mind if they don’t fully agree.”

She recalled a conversation with someone who professed to be a strong supporter of Question 3 and spoke of a transgender co-worker and the gay and lesbian friends in his life.

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At the same time, “He used language that a lot of people would find very distasteful,” Rogers said, noting that he had “asked me my ‘real name’ at some point.”

‘Getting face-to-face with people . . . can make a big difference.’

— Dee Rogers, canvasser seeking voters’ support for Question 3 

Transgender people don’t speak of their old names but the man was genuinely curious, connecting with Rogers about how hard it was to start referring to his coworker by a new name.

“In that context, it was fine,” Rogers said. “If you support my rights and view me as a person and want the best for other trans people around, I don’t need you to be correct on all fronts.”

On this day, she had a tricky interaction with a 76-year-old woman who professed her solid support for Question 3 but who raised questions that sounded distinctly skeptical.

“I don’t know how to phrase this,” she said, beginning a series of questions on bathroom logistics. She understood how people like Rogers would go to the ladies’ room. But how would transgender women approach a urinal? And what might be seen by someone who walked in?

“Especially with children, you don’t want them exposed to something they don’t understand,” the woman said.

Rogers assured her that there is always at least one stall in the men’s room for a transgender man to use, and that most don’t want to draw attention to themselves in an arena where they already face scrutiny. “We just want to get in there, do our business, and get out,” Rogers said.

In discussing “sexual preferences,” the woman listed not only gay and transgender people but also “pedophiles,” causing Rogers to worry that she might be conflating them. She even articulated the opposition’s key argument: that predators or pedophiles who are not transgender could take advantage of the law to invade women’s privacy and endanger them.

That led Rogers to remind her gently that “it’s still illegal to hurt somebody in a restroom or invade their privacy.”

From left, Rogers, Monahan, and Austin-Spooner discussed their canvassing strategy.
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe
From left, Rogers, Monahan, and Austin-Spooner discussed their canvassing strategy.

As the woman went on, she made it clearer that she was pushing back against the opposition’s argument. She thinks transgender people are unfairly suspected and may be vulnerable to violence themselves.

“I think the only ones getting hurt is yourselves,” the woman told Rogers. “That’s who you are. That’s who you want to be. So God bless you.”

In the end, Rogers considered the woman a likely supporter who is still uncomfortable with the topic and unaccustomed to talking about it.

“She hasn’t been around a lot of transgender people,” Rogers concluded. “That’s another benefit of doing this work. Here we are . . . and she’ll be able to say, ‘I met a really nice transgender person.’ ”

Some voters are hard to read. The 80-year-old man Rogers approached told Rogers he would probably vote for transgender rights — even as he uttered brusque phrases like “safety first” and “men’s room for men, women’s room for women.”

“That’s how you’ve lived your whole life,” Rogers affirmed. “I dig it. So how do you think transgender people fit into that? They can be like me, like sort of an ambiguous person in lots of ways. I live as a woman. My friends call me she/her.”

“Tricky, right?” the man said.

As she asked his concerns, he refused to expand upon his thinking, but settled on this: “When you judge people, you have to look at yourself.” He told her he knows someone who is transgender, and he thanked her for taking her message door-to-door.

On the whole, Rogers believed he would vote yes. “He is not somebody who feels like ‘I will always support trans nondiscrimination rights no matter what,’ ” Rogers said after leaving his porch. “But he does know a trans person, feels there’s nothing bad about them, wants the best for them, and basically just treated me like a human being.”

Though Massachusetts is the first state where voters will be able to support or veto transgender rights by public referendum, some cities have voted on similar measures, and the Freedom for All campaign has used lessons learned in those elections to inform its strategy. Expecting the opposition to launch TV ads that scare voters in the final stretch of the campaign, the transgender activists are literally circulating the opposition’s messages for them, carrying tablets and showing voters an evocative video to gauge whether it will sway their support.

“Internally we call it inoculation,” campaign manager Phil Sherwood said in an interview. As with a vaccine, it’s meant to expose people to something to protect them from it later.

“The goal is to tell folks what they’re going to see before they see it, so that when they see it, they’re less moved by it,” Sherwood said.

It’s a time-intensive, risky strategy, and it does sometimes backfire or put voters off. When Rogers introduced the ad to one voter, who called herself a “definite yes” vote, she tried to demur, saying she didn’t have time.

But after Rogers assured her it would only take two minutes, the woman watched the menacing ad and reasserted her support, saying people “have the right to change themselves if they want.”

Rogers thanked her for her support and said that on Election Day, she’ll be voting in honor of someone she met during the campaign who had just started to transition.

“Is there anyone in particular you’ll be thinking of when you cast your vote?” Rogers asked.

The woman barely missed a beat before answering, “You.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.