by Rebecca Kling
“You’re transgender? I never would have known.”
I was in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, standing on the front stoop of a four-story brick apartment building. Down the street to my right was a church founded before the Civil War, a sign of the neighborhood’s history. To my left was a row of teardowns and gut rehabs, signs of the neighborhood’s gentrification.
In front of me, standing in the building’s vestibule, was a Black woman in her 60s. She had descended from the third floor to speak with me, responding politely when I rang her buzzer from the front steps, so we could talk about nondiscrimination protections and transgender rights.
Last Saturday was the kick-off for Freedom Massachusetts’ summer canvassing season. Dozens of people attended a morning training at the Plumbers and Gasfitters Local 12 union hall, surrounded by maps stuck with union pins, engraved plaques honoring union veterans, and small exhibits on the history of various types of pipe fittings.
For the next six months, until the November elections, Freedom Massachusetts will train and deploy volunteers to participate in canvassing actions across Massachusetts. I’ll let Freedom Massachusetts explain:
On Election Day, Massachusetts voters will face the first-ever statewide popular vote on protections for transgender people from discrimination. The referendum would repeal our state law that protects transgender people from discrimination in public places, including restaurants, stores, and doctors’ offices. A “yes” vote keeps the current law as it is.
Traditional canvassing is a numbers game: quantity over quality. The goal is to hit as many doors as possible, as quickly as possible, to distribute literature or gather signatures or remind people to vote.
Freedom Massachusetts, however, is deploying volunteers to do what is called deep canvassing. In deep canvassing, volunteers might spend 10, 15, even 20 minutes talking to a potential voter. Volunteers take time to truly listen to voters’ concerns, and to talk through their concerns. And volunteers return multiple times to the same addresses to reinforce their message and their relationship with potential voters.
Deep canvassing has been in the news the last few years, with coverage appearing in The New York Times, NPR, Bloomberg News, and elsewhere. There is tantalizing evidence indicating that deep canvassing can change voters’ minds more than TV ads, radio ads, door hangers, email blasts, or any other type of voter engagement. And, even better, those changed minds stay changed; they don’t go back to their previous opinions.
Study Finds Deep Conversations Can Reduce Transgender Prejudice
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All of which brought me to Boston, to Dorchester, and to the stoop of this potential voter. As the Freedom Massachusetts script suggested, I had started by asking her what she thought of nondiscrimination protections for transgender people. She was undecided, saying she “didn’t know much about all that.”
We talked about whether or not she knew any transgender people (she didn’t), whether she had ever experienced discrimination (she had), and what her concerns were about nondiscrimination protections (the safety of women and children in restrooms). It was about then, maybe 10 minutes into our conversation, that I decided to share my own trans identity.
“I’m actually transgender, myself,” I said. This woman seemed nice enough, but I still wasn’t sure how she would respond.
“You’re transgender? I never would have known,” she replied. She didn’t change her stance or lose any of her polite demeanor.
I explained that not being able to use the women’s restroom meant it was harder for me to find a job, difficult to go out to the movies, impossible to spend hours at the library lost in a book. She looked thoughtful, if not totally convinced.
We talked for a few more minutes. I closed by repeating the first question I had asked her: “On a scale from ‘strongly support’ to ‘strongly oppose,’ how do you feel about nondiscrimination protections covering transgender people’s access to public spaces like restrooms and locker rooms?”
She was still undecided, but ended our conversation by saying, “You’ve given me a lot to think about.” I thanked her for her time and moved on to the next name and address on my list.
Later that day, back at the union hall for a volunteer debrief, I learned that our group of volunteers had knocked on over 1,300 doors and had over 100 conversations with potential voters. That is both a phenomenal number for one Saturday afternoon, and a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 4.5 million registered voters in Massachusetts.
Likewise, six months between now and Election Day is both a lot of time to reach people, and not much time at all.
Best to get back to work.
If you’d like to become part of this work, you can help out regardless of where you live by volunteering with the National Equality Action Team. You can have conversations much like the one I had in Dorchester, but over the phone, and help people understand better what it means to be trans and why nondiscrimination laws are so important.
If you do live in Massachusetts, you can sign up to get involved with Freedom Massachusetts in even more ways. Learn more at Freedom Massachusetts’ website.
Rebecca Kling is the Education Program Director at NCTE.