Top photo: (l to r) Panelists Alexandra Chandler, Mimi Lemay, Valerie Frias, and Liz DeSelm share personal narratives and offer support for Question 3.

Bottom photo: Network Steering Committee members joined many of the participants at the MAHRC convening at the State House.

The Network is a Steering Committee member of the Massachusetts Human Rights Collaboration Coalition (MAHRC, formerly the Mass Association of Human Rights and Relations Commissions). On October 12, the MAHRC organized a full day regional convening of Human Rights Commissions (HRC) and community-based non-profits working on human rights and social justice concerns.

Legislative Co-Sponsors

This event, held at the State House, was co-sponsored by Senator Jason Lewis and Representative Paul Brodeur. Both legislators gave inspiring opening remarks. Reviewing legislative history and aspirations, each emphasized their continuing work in promoting human rights. In particular, they voiced strong support for Ballot Question 3, which would maintain the current law prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations, including theaters and restaurants.

Support for Ballot Question 3

The morning session was on the perspectives and rights of transgender people, with four speakers giving powerful personal statements and strong support for Question 3. The speakers were: Liz DeSelm, the first openly transgender woman on the Melrose School Committee; Alexandra Chandler, the first transgender person in military naval intelligence to transition while on the job, and a former Mass-3 Congressional Candidate; Mimi Lemay, the mother of an elementary-school-aged transgender boy; and Valerie Frias, the Executive Director of PFLAG who is working with Freedom For All Massachusetts.

Liz DeSelm’s personal account and support for Ballot Question 3

We have come so far as a community. From the establishment of the Melrose Human Rights Commission in 1992, to the adoption of the city motto, “One Community Open to All” in 1993, to the municipal election of 1998 when Melrose elected a gay Mayor to 2015 when Melrose elected our first transgender person to any public office, on through to the municipal election of 2017 when Melrose elected our first person of color, a female person of color I might add, to public office, we have come so very far, but we must remain vigilant.

Thanks to the inclusion of gender identity within the City’s non-discrimination ordinance enacted by our Board of Alderman in 2014, we can shop, live, and thrive within our community without fear of being turned away for presenting ourselves with authenticity.

However, these basic human rights are now threatened. When a small but vocal minority within the commonwealth can rally to add a ballot measure that will strip trans people of our rights to public spaces, we must act!

When the United States Secretary of Education rescinded transgender protection guidelines federally, the Superintendent of Melrose Public Schools and the Melrose School Committee reaffirmed all students are welcome and deserving of a educational environment where they can learn, explore and grow without fear of institutional recrimination.

Our work is not done.

I ask you to vote to affirm transgender protections this November. I ask you to affirm our rights, our humanity, by voting Yes on 3. Because trans rights are human rights.

Commonly referred to by a small but vocal minority as the bathroom bill, this ballot measure would repeal the hard won Transgender Public Accommodations Law passed by the Massachusetts legislature in 2016.

When a group of people is denied access to basic services, and access to a public bathroom is among the most basic of services, you reduce that population’s ability to function within society. You do not merely marginalized, but dehumanized.

I’d like to share with you a personal story about bathrooms. When I transitioned at work, and did not transition until well after I had begun transition in my personal life, I asked management to use the women’s bathroom. I was denied.  As an alternative, I was told to use the unisex bathrooms in the lobby of the building, three floors down and at the opposite end of the building.

I am not alone. In a study from 2016 by the National Transgender Center for Equality, 30%, of more than 27,000 self-identified transgender people surveyed, reported being discriminated against at work, 29% lived in poverty with nearly 15% unemployed. These are adults, who like me, chose to live authentically, and yet faced discrimination at work or could not get work due to being transgender.

Nearly one third of those who responded to the survey reported being mistreated within the past year in public spaces: harassed at the grocery store; misgendered intentionally while seeking healthcare; refused access to restrooms at work or in restaurants; passed over for promotion or worse, fired from their job; or unable to secure housing. The list goes on.

I am not naive. I do not believe you can legislate society’s opinions. However, by legislating conduct in public spaces, society will in time grow more tolerant if not outright accepting.

I ask you now to continue this legacy. Vote yes on 3!
Affirm the rights of transgender people.
Affirm the rights of gender non-conforming people.
Affirm our collective humanity.

Because when you dehumanize a population, you shame them into thinking they are not worthy of life. You create an environment of self-loathing, of intolerance, and easy bigotry. You create an environment where suicide and mental health issues abound; 40% of those 27,000 respondents report having attempted suicide at least once; 39% reported major mental health challenges in the previous year.

I am here to tell you I am worthy. Our community is worthy. Transgender people are worthy. Gender non-conforming people are worthy.

Vote yes on 3. Affirm my rights. By doing so, you affirm our common humanity.

I leave you with this:

“All of us who are openly gay are living and writing the history of our movement. We are no more–and no less—heroic than the suffragists and abolitionists of the 19th century; and the labor organizers, Freedom Riders, Stonewall demonstrators, and environmentalists of the 20th century. We are ordinary people, living our lives, and trying as civil-rights activist Dorothy Cotton said, to ‘fix what ain’t right’ in our society.“ —Senator Tammy Baldwin

Roundtable discussions for Sharing Ideas and Strategies

The afternoon roundtable discussions focused on: strategies for educating and advocating for human rights issues; responding to an incident; building positive relationships with local law enforcement; and creating an HRC or human rights nonprofit. Arlington Police Chief Fred Ryan shared his expertise and passion for these issues, asserting strongly that law enforcement agencies need to go beyond writing policies to infusing values throughout their departments, to ensure behavior change on the job. ACLU attorney Laura Rotolo discussed issues to be considered in creating communities that are safe for immigrants throughout the Commonwealth. Participants learned about the Human Rights Academy in Barnstable County where students develop and implement their own projects. The ongoing negative impact of Native American mascots in sports was discussed, including strategies for eliminating their use.

Recommendations for creating either an HRC or a nonprofit included getting local leaders such as the school superintendent, police chief, religious leaders, and key stake holders in a community together to start the process.   It was also recommended that a record be kept of every step as one works to achieve an organization.

Panelists also discussed our individual obligation to ensure everyone’s human rights are respected. In order to sustainably promote, defend, and fight for human rights, we need to follow the lead of those whose human rights are being violated. We all should reflect on our own suffering in order to feed our compassion for others. But, for those of us who have privilege in one setting or another, we need to center those of us experiencing exclusion and oppression. Then, we all have to exercise our rights to gather, share our narratives, discuss information and develop strategies to protect and promote human rights.

One goal of the MAHRC is to facilitate networking and collaboration across the Commonwealth. It was exciting to bring people over forty together at this first convening. For example, School Committee members from six different Middlesex County communities appreciated the opportunity to discuss common concerns.

A Successful Event, enhanced by Koshari Mama

The written evaluations confirmed the event was successful. Participants particularly appreciated: hearing personal stories; learning about strategies and activities of other organizations; and having the opportunity to converse and connect. The conversations were particularly enjoyable over the delicious lunch donated and served by Koshari Mama, and the coffee donated by Starbucks in Melrose.