Capital Source

One more hurdle for transgender rights effort

A flag representing the transgender community, right, flew next to the Massachusetts state flag.
A flag representing the transgender community, right, flew next to the Massachusetts state flag. Steven Senne/Associated Press/Associated Press

With the long-stalled transgender rights bill suddenly getting some traction on Beacon Hill, some of its more savvy legislative supporters are nervously considering a potential hurdle: a referendum on the legislation on the November statewide ballot.

Even if the bill were approved by the Legislature and Governor Charlie Baker, social conservatives, who are at the core of the opposition, would have a chance to try to overturn it by putting the issue before voters. They would have 30 days after the bill became law to launch a campaign that would require them to ultimately gather 43,167 signatures of certified voters — and they know it.


With the public divided over the issue, taking it to the ballot may be an appealing option for opponents. Already, the Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate have protected their colleagues in conservative districts by putting the vote off until after the May 10 deadline for potential election challengers to turn in signature papers to qualify for the ballot.

And the last thing Democratic incumbents want this fall is a screaming campaign over what opponents love to call the “bathroom bill.”

But whether the opponents of the transgender bill can muster a move to get the voters to make the final decision on the issue is complicated.

First, the time-frame is tight, and it requires timely action by a lot of characters who don’t want it on the ballot.

The legislative leadership can set the pace of the conference committee between the House and Senate to smooth out differences in their two versions of the bill. It can also set the dates for roll call votes. Governor Charlie Baker, who has signaled he won’t veto the bill, would have 10 days to make a decision, once it reached his desk. Attorney General Maura Healey, who has come out in strong support of the legislation, would have an unspecified amount of time to prepare the language of the referendum question.


After all that, petitioners would have 90 days after the bill is signed by the governor to collect the signatures — which could then be challenged for their validity. All this would have to be completed within 60 days of the Nov. 8 election.

The social conservative leaders are not showing their hand at this point. Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said his group has not given up the fight to stop the bill in the Legislature. But he would not rule out a referendum drive.

“Our focus is stopping the bill,’’ he said. When pressed about a repeal campaign, he said: “We will cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.