During a recent session at the Bridgewater Public Library, Vernon and Beryl Domingo gave a slideshow and talk on transgender rights, explaining terms like “cis gender” and “gender nonconformity” to a large group, many of them new to the subject.
“On November 6, there will be an attempt to roll back protections for transgender people,” Vernon Domingo told them. “We should never be voting on civil rights. Civil rights are human rights and should be recognized as such.”
It isn’t the first time the couple has been in a political fight. Classified “colored” in their native South Africa, they were outspoken anti-apartheid foes and were expelled from their university. But this time the fight is even more personal. It’s about their child.
Micah Domingo, 29, was born and raised female. While a senior at Boston University, he came out to his parents as transgender, saying he’d always felt he was male. “We were completely stunned. We didn’t have a clue what to do next,” Beryl Domingo told the group. “We were sad and worried, and we felt very alone.”
Today, Micah lives with his partner in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he is a data analyst at a health care center. He’s the beloved uncle of his older brother’s two children, and the extended family remains close.
But his parents know that many transgender people are rejected by their families, and are targets of hate and violence. That’s another reason why Vernon, a retired professor from Bridgewater State University, and Beryl, a retired social worker with the state Department of Children and Families, have gone public with their family’s story.
Massachusetts is among 19 states, along with Washington, D.C., that have anti-discrimination laws protecting transgender people. Here, the law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity regarding housing, employment, credit, college education, and public accommodations. The latter category includes hotels, inns, restaurants, bars, theaters, concert halls, sports stadiums, auditoriums and lecture halls, hospitals, stores, and shopping centers. The law includes the right to use the restroom that conforms to one’s gender identity.
Dianne and Leon Monnin of Medford have also jumped into the campaign to educate voters about the referendum to repeal such protections. Their son came out to them as gay in high school and as transgender in college. Now 35, he’s a nurse practitioner who lives in California with his partner.
“We felt our family is in a good place, and we’re in a position to help others,” says Dianne Monnin. “But there are challenges everywhere, even in the most progressive places, so we’re working now to make sure public accommodations are not removed from the current law.”
The Domingos and Monnins and other supporters of the law are bracing themselves for a brutal campaign. “There will be a lot of fear-mongering ads out there, and it’s very important to get a balanced picture out,” Monnin says. “It’s just a case of civil rights as far as we’re concerned.”
She refuses to reduce the argument to “a bathroom bill,” noting that, if the law is repealed, all public accommodations could be off-limits to people like her son: “For example, my son could be discriminated against and not be allowed to eat at McDonald’s.”
The opposition group, Keep MA Safe, is indeed painting it as “the Bathroom Law,” for which it collected 32,375 certified signatures needed to put it on the ballot for repeal. “The bill would endanger the privacy and safety of women and children in public bathrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms ...” according to the group’s website.
Monnin says that’s ridiculous: “Transgender people have been going to the bathroom for a very long time, and from my experience they’re the least likely to want a big fuss made when they’re in the bathroom. They want privacy and peace and quiet like everyone else does.”
Kasey Suffredini is co-chairman of Freedom for All Massachusetts, which is working to preserve the public accommodations law. “Transgender people should have the same protections as everyone else in Massachuseets, to go about their lives feeling safe, to be able to run their errands in places like grocery stores and banks,” he says.
Suffredini says that the Massachusetts referendum is seen as a national test case for those who oppose LGBT rights. “Our opponents have been quoted publicly as saying it’s their belief that if they can stop the advance of LGBT rights in Massachusetts, they can stop it everywhere in the country,” he says. “At the end of the day, the state will send a message about the fate of transgender people in the Commonwealth.”
The Domingos and the Monnins are eager to speak to whatever groups will listen to them on the topics of acceptance and equality. They understand that it takes some people time to understand the issues. And they agree that they themselves have learned a lot from their kids.
Vernon Domingo stresses to an audience that coming out as transgender is not “a fad or a fancy.” He recalls his son, who has had hormone treatments and surgery, sobbing: “Do you think I would go through this because of a fancy?”
Mostly, they’re looking for allies in the upcoming fall vote, where, as one poster reads: “Discrimination Will Be On The Ballot.”
It is, Beryl Domingo says, “the civil rights issue of our time.”