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Maura Healey, Joseph Kennedy back transgender rights legislation

Jeanne Talbot of Grafton talked about her 14-year-old daughter Nicole (pictured) during a State House hearing on expanding transgender rights Tuesday,Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Attorney General Maura Healey and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III lent high-profile support Tuesday to legislation that would ban discrimination against transgender people in malls, restaurants, and other public accommodations, arguing at a State House hearing that Massachusetts’ reputation as a bastion of civil rights is at stake.

The testimony increased the pressure on lawmakers to pass the bill and on Governor Charlie Baker, who has signaled hesitation, to sign it.

“Look, if we don’t grant these protections to transgender people, I believe that we are sending a message that we, as a state, don’t fully accept them,” Healey said.

Kennedy, a Democrat, lamented that a state that often leads on social issues is lagging behind on transgender rights.


“We are known for pushing our country,” he said. “So it means something when we don’t.”

Massachusetts lawmakers approved legal protections for transgender people in housing, employment, lending, and public education in 2011. But they left public accommodations out of the bill amid concern that transgender women with male anatomy would demand access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms.

That concern surfaced again Tuesday, with state Representative James J. Lyons Jr., an Andover Republican who is on the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, suggesting the law would violate the privacy of millions in bathrooms and locker rooms around the state.

“The privacy rights of our children matter,” he said, to the applause of supporters.

Healey, a Democrat, replied that transgender people have been sharing bathrooms and locker rooms with the broader population for years.

“We expect people to comport themselves with a certain decorum and modesty,” she said. “My point to all of you is, don’t expect anything less of transgender people. They’re no different.”

The legislation’s prospects are unclear. Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, and Amherst Democrat, has come out in support. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Democrat from Winthrop, has not publicly declared a position, but has signaled that he is sympathetic, saying in a recent written statement that “we must remain committed to fostering a society where transgender individuals no longer have to tolerate hate, discrimination, or bias-related violence.”


One question hanging over the Legislature: Are there enough votes for a discrimination ban to override a potential gubernatorial veto?

Baker told reporters this week that he doesn’t want “anybody to be discriminated against.” But pressed on whether he supports the legislation, he would only say “the devil is always in the details with respect to this sort of thing.”

During his failed bid for governor in 2010, Baker referred to similar legislation as a “bathroom bill” and said he would veto it if elected.

Mason J. Dunn, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, said in an interview outside the hearing room Tuesday that advocates would not stand for a public accommodations bill that carved out exceptions for bathrooms and locker rooms.

Inside, the hearing was often emotionally charged.

Brandon Adams, 14, a transgender boy from Framingham, spoke of being shoved into a wall and called a freak. A former friend, he said, wrote on social media that he dreamed of waking up with blood on his hands and Adams dead.

“Every day, I live my life in fear,” he said. “I’m scared. I’m scared because of who I am.”

Peter S. Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies with the Family Research Council in Washington, said acceptance of transgender people is a “social problem” that should not be resolved through legislation.


He added that Adams had been “ill-served by the transgender movement, which has told him that his feelings trump his biology,” drawing an audible “wow” from one transgender advocate in the audience.

Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said he would turn certain questions around and ask about the rights of his wife and 5-year-old daughter, should they enter a YMCA locker room only to see a transgender woman “disrobe and expose his very male genitalia.”

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.