In a recent private meeting with transgender rights activists, House majority leader Ronald Mariano, the gravel-voiced Quincy Democrat, offered up one of the many theories of politics he has developed during a long career on Beacon Hill.
Issues are like people, he said. They go through an embryonic stage, an adolescent stage, and a mature one. By the time the state Legislature voted to preserve the court-imposed right to same-sex marriage in Massachusetts a decade ago, he said, the issue was mature.
“This is a little different,” said Mariano, who counts himself a supporter of transgender rights. “There just aren’t that many transgender folks, and people don’t know them. They’re not comfortable. So they’re going through, sort of, the adolescence of the issue.”
The growing pains were on full display this fall when activists, despite a full-throttle lobbying effort that enlisted some of the state’s top Democrats, were unable to cajole the Legislature into voting on a bill that would protect transgender people from discrimination in malls, restaurants, and other public accommodations.
With lawmakers in winter recess now, the fight will almost certainly drift into 2016, when election-year politics could make it even more difficult to get the controversial legislation onto the House and Senate floors.
The delay, in a state known as a tribune of civil rights, underscores the trickiness of an issue that burst into the national consciousness last month when Houston voters rejected a transgender rights ordinance amid concerns about male sexual predators claiming to be female and entering women’s restrooms. “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms” read the signs pasted up all over the Texas city.
The debate hasn’t been quite so pitched in Massachusetts. But the same concerns about bathrooms and locker rooms have proved to be the major sticking point on Beacon Hill.
House assistant majority leader Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat pushing the antidiscrimination measure, said many of his colleagues want to support the bill. But they need a good, quick retort to the bathroom concern for constituents and political opponents back home, he said, and they are struggling to find one.
“That’s the main conversation we’re engaged in now: How do you answer what you know, in your gut, is a bad argument?” he said. “It’s not easy to have an elevator speech on that one.”
There are responses, Rushing said, even if they don’t come in pithy sound bites. Eighteen states and 13 Massachusetts cities and towns protect transgender people from discrimination in public accommodations and none, he said, has documented a case of someone using the cover of law to enter a bathroom and assault someone.
Indeed, said Mason J. Dunn, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, “the people who are most likely to face discrimination or harassment or violence in [bathrooms and locker rooms] are trans people.”
Opponents say assault is not the only concern; there are also worries about privacy for women and girls who might feel uncomfortable sharing a locker room with a man who identifies as a woman.
The conservative Massachusetts Family Institute has pressed the point in testimony and phone calls to legislators.
“We believe that the concerns we’ve expressed, that this would violate the privacy rights of the majority of citizens in Massachusetts — particularly women and children — were heard by enough of the representatives that they didn’t have the votes to bring it forward,” said Andrew Beckwith, president of the institute.
Transgender rights advocates and their allies in the Legislature are confident they have majorities in the House and Senate. But they are not as confident they have the two-thirds vote they would need to override a potential veto from Governor Charlie Baker.
Baker, a Republican, has repeatedly dodged questions about where he stands on the issue, saying “the devil is always in the details.” But during an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2010, he dismissed similar legislation as a “bathroom bill” and pledged to veto it.
Whether opposed or uncommitted, he finds himself increasingly isolated on the issue.
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, where Baker once served as chief executive, is cochairing a broad alliance of businesses, including Google and Eastern Bank, that back the bill. His hometown of Swampscott has an antidiscrimination ordinance in place. Even Baker’s pastor, Dennis Calhoun of Old North Church in Marblehead, is supporting the legislation.
But that does not necessarily mean the governor is out of step with public opinion, as the lopsided results in Houston — helmed by a thrice-elected lesbian mayor — suggest.
The uncertain political landscape has spawned an internal debate among transgender rights advocates: Do they need to lock down a veto-proof majority before the measure goes to the floor, or should they just press for a vote and force Baker’s hand?
Proponents could probably avoid the quandary altogether by backing a public accommodations bill that has exceptions for bathrooms and locker rooms. But they have made it clear they will brook no compromise.
“A piece of legislation that on the one hand says discrimination is not OK, but then creates a carve out that is discriminatory against transgender people because of who they are — that’s not a nondiscrimination bill,” said Kasey Suffredini, chief program officer for Freedom for All Americans, a national gay and transgender rights organization that has been active in the Massachusetts campaign.
The push for the public accommodations legislation is, by any measure, an impressive one. Activists have the support of more than 170 companies, more than a dozen police chiefs, and the state’s congressional delegation.
Attorney General Maura Healey has committed substantial political capital to the campaign, testifying before a legislative committee, dashing off legal memos, and wooing undecided state legislators. And Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a former state representative, has made calls to at least one member of the Boston delegation and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.
DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat who prides himself on his gay rights advocacy, has emerged as perhaps the most important figure in the fight. He strongly hinted at his support for the measure for months and publicly declared it for the first time at the end of the Legislature’s formal fall sessions.
On the eve of the final day of those sessions, advocates were still hoping he would push the bill onto the House floor. Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, an openly gay Amherst Democrat, was ready to move the measure through his chamber if it landed there afterward.
But moderate House Democrats were hesitant to go on record on the issue. And they were particularly leery, lawmakers say, of backing a measure that might fall short of a veto-proof majority: The last thing they wanted was to take a painful vote, only to see the bill fail to even become law.
In the end, DeLeo did not move the measure.
Advocates say they were disappointed. But they’re hopeful they will eventually prevail. They’re going to keep introducing lawmakers to transgender constituents, they say. Some professional athletes, they have suggested, may endorse the measure. And DeLeo, they insist, will come through.
“There is no question that the speaker is strongly committed to the issue,” said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. “He is struggling with the how and the when.”