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Shirley Leung

Transgender rights bill will be good for Mass. business

Bruce Springsteen, performing in February at TD Garden in Boston, canceled a show in North Carolina to protest a state law discriminating against gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals.
Bruce Springsteen, performing in February at TD Garden in Boston, canceled a show in North Carolina to protest a state law discriminating against gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File

Maybe Governor Charlie Baker is too busy basking in the glory of winning General Electric to notice that he’s about to fumble the ball on transgender rights.

The two might seem completely unrelated, but protecting the rights of this community is no longer just about politics. It’s also a chance to give Massachusetts another edge in wooing companies to do business here.

The governor can sit on his high horse and think we’re not North Carolina, where his counterpart is in hot water after cramming through a law that discriminates against gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals.

Even though Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage, we can’t lay claim to fully protecting the LGBT community. Seventeen other states are ahead of us in passing a version of a law that allows individuals to use public bathrooms and other spaces based on gender identity rather than their sex at birth.

On the issue of public accommodation, we’re not much better than North Carolina.

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Baker opposes the North Carolina law. Still, his ambiguous position on the Massachusetts transgender public accommodation bill got him in trouble last week when the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce rescinded an invite for Baker to be part of its awards dinner in part because he hadn’t embraced the legislation.

LGBT equality matters to corporate America. More than 130 companies and CEOs — including General Electric, Bank of America, Apple, EMC, and Biogen — have signed a letter urging North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory to repeal the controversial HB 2 legislation passed last month. Baker, who ran a big company, should intuitively understand why this issue can affect our business climate.

More than words, the protests now cost North Carolina real money. Rock legend Bruce Springsteen abruptly canceled a concert Sunday in Greensboro so he could stand with businesses and others in opposing the law. In a note posted on his website, Springsteen wrote that “this is a time for me and the band to show solidarity for those freedom fighters.”

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This came days after PayPal, the online payment company, said it has withdrawn plans to open an operations center in Charlotte that would have employed more than 400 people.

“Our decision is a clear and unambiguous one,” PayPal chief executive Dan Schulman wrote in an online post. “As a company that is committed to the principle that everyone deserves to live without fear of discrimination simply for being who they are, becoming an employer in North Carolina, where members of our teams will not have equal rights under the law, is simply untenable.”

I would tell Baker to recruit Paypal, but we are compromised until Beacon Hill gets its own house in order. In 2011, Massachusetts passed a law that prohibits gender identity discrimination in areas such as housing, employment, public education, and credit.

But opponents, fearing predators in bathrooms where they don’t belong, forced out the public accommodation clause.

Now comes along a measure that would close the loophole and protect transgender individuals in public areas. More than 200 companies in Massachusetts support the legislation, along with a broad coalition that includes teachers and police chiefs.

The bill is not complicated. It’s all of one page consisting of changing “sex” to “gender identity” and inserting a few sentences.

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Still, Baker has insisted that “the details are important on this one” and hesitates to say, before it lands on his desk, whether he would sign a bill. Of course, on issues he’s passionate about, like charter schools, he can’t stop talking about how he feels.

That could be why the bill is stuck in a joint committee. Both Senate President Stan Rosenberg and House Speaker Bob DeLeo support the measure, but DeLeo is working through concerns from House members.

Who’s to blame? Baker could end the stalemate now by sending a strong signal where he stands. It’s not a reach given that the governor supports the current transgender rights law on the books.

We also know that Harvard Pilgrim under Baker — he was the chief executive for a decade until 2009 — received a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s annual survey on corporate policies and practices related to LGBT workplace equality. Today, Harvard Pilgrim maintains that distinction.

This gets at why corporate America is on the forefront of fighting for LGBT equality. Long before lawmakers, HR departments have been wrestling with how to treat LBGT employees. Companies have had to figure it out for themselves, extending benefits to same-sex partners, then getting behind gay marriage.

Businesses have come a long way. In 2002, only 3 percent of Fortune 500 firms had protections in place for transgender employees; today, more than 75 percent do, according to an annual survey done by the Human Rights Campaign, the prominent LGBT civil rights group.

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So when companies here and in North Carolina speak out for transgender rights, they speak from experience. They know there won’t be any problems when people use public bathrooms based on gender identity.

Companies care about this stuff because strong LGBT policies are about being able to recruit and retain the best and the brightest talent.

If Baker and Beacon Hill want to keep up Massachusetts’ winning streak with businesses, they need to close the loophole on our transgender law.

A bill that would close a loophole in an earlier Massachusetts law and protect transgender people in public areas is stuck in a joint committee. Above: A gender-neutral bathroom at the University of Vermont’s campus in Burlington.
A bill that would close a loophole in an earlier Massachusetts law and protect transgender people in public areas is stuck in a joint committee. Above: A gender-neutral bathroom at the University of Vermont’s campus in Burlington.Toby Talbot/Associated Press/File

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.