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Yvonne Abraham

Baker needs to lead on transgender rights

Governor Charlie Baker.
Governor Charlie Baker.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

It was bad enough back in 2010, when he called it “the bathroom bill” and said he’d veto it.

But five years later — with the then-candidate now an enormously popular governor — Charlie Baker’s unwillingness to take a strong stand on expanding protections for transgender men and women looks truly awful.

In 2011, after Baker lost his first bid for governor, legislators passed a law providing some protections for transgender people, but balked at giving them the right to be accommodated in public places — including bathrooms of the gender with which they identify.

Religious conservatives and others had freaked out, conjuring the specter of transgender predators going into bathrooms where they didn’t belong and attacking people. “The bathroom bill” was their derisive name for the legislation. Beacon Hill bowed to the panic.

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We’ve come a long way since then, with a remarkable expansion of gay rights, and a better understanding of the struggles of transgender men and women. Eighteen other states now guarantee them the right to be served in restaurants, and to choose the bathroom in which they are most comfortable and safe. But not Massachusetts, the state that led the nation on gay marriage rights. So a big coalition of legislators, businesses, police, mayors, and colleges are pushing the state to catch up.

Opponents have pushed the bathroom panic button again. Even though, as Attorney General Maura Healey said at an October hearing, there hasn’t been a single recorded incident of somebody using the protections to commit crimes — not in any of the states, or the 225 cities (including 13 in Massachusetts), that have public accommodation laws.

The only people getting hurt in bathrooms are transgender men and women themselves. Kasey Suffredini, co-chair of Freedom Massachusetts, the group pushing the legislation, knows this firsthand. While he was still transitioning to male a few years ago, he used the women’s restroom in a Cambridge club. When he emerged, a woman waiting in a long line told him he had no right to be there, and one of the woman’s friends tripped him. Outside, the women and their boyfriends glared.

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“We [left] the club because we didn’t feel safe any more,” Suffredini said. “This is what happens to transgender people all the time.”

This is actual experience, not some phantom scenario cooked up by opponents who are weirded out by those who don’t conform to their notions of gender.

Baker is surrounded by people who see the need for this bill. Senate President Stan Rosenberg backs it. House Speaker Bob DeLeo is sending supportive signals. Harvard Pilgrim, which Baker once led, and Harvard College, his alma mater, are behind it. As is his pastor, Dennis Calhoun, of Old North Church in Marblehead.

“I have had a chance to tell him it is important to expand the protections afforded other people under the law,” Calhoun said on Friday.

But so far, Baker, a gay-rights supporter, has been maddeningly cute. This governor, who blew past legislators on opiate abuse and charter schools, is hiding behind them here, saying he’ll to wait till a measure reaches his desk before deciding whether to support it.

“The governor doesn’t want anybody to be discriminated against based on their gender identity,” his spokesman Tim Buckley said on Friday, for the eleventieth time. Great, but what does that mean? Buckley won’t go there.

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Opposition to the bill is dominated by the same haters who fought gay marriage. Baker’s silence here only enables them.

If he came out in favor of expanding transgender rights, it would send a powerful signal, and give fearful legislators cover. More important, it would make it clear that transgender men and women are worth as much as any other citizen of the Commonwealth.

There may be times when it makes sense for a governor to hang back and let the politics play out. This is not one of them.

Baker must lead.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com.