Education groups to back transgender rights bill

Transgender rights advocates, hoping to build momentum for a controversial antidiscrimination measure in the state Legislature, are set to announce the support of several major educational organizations on Monday.

The Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, and two large teachers unions — the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts — will throw their support behind the bill.

The bill would prohibit bias against transgender people in restaurants, shopping malls, and other public accommodations.

Lawmakers have already barred discrimination in public education under legislation approved in 2011. But advocates say they want students and teachers to have protections beyond the classroom and school yard.


Educators add that the relatively smooth implementation of the schools law is evidence that the broader public accommodations legislation now before the Legislature could go into effect with minimal social disruption.

“We’ve done it in the schools, and I think that it can be done outside the schools,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

The flashpoint in the debate over the public accommodations bill is privacy. Critics say women and girls may feel uncomfortable sharing bathrooms and locker rooms with people who are born with male anatomy but identify as female.

The schools have served as a sort of testing ground for this issue.

Scott said they have forged all kinds of accommodations — giving transgender students access to individual, unisex bathrooms in the nurse’s office, for instance, or creating curtained spaces in locker rooms.

Advocates on both sides say they are not aware of any significant, public controversy that has erupted in a Massachusetts school. But concerns still remain.

“You have a zero-sum game of privacy rights,” said Andrew Beckwith, president of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute. “Folks who are struggling with gender identity issues have unique privacy concerns, but those [run] up against the privacy concerns of everyone else.’’


“I think it’s irresponsible, at minimum, to say that one student’s privacy interests trumps everyone else’s,” Beckwith said.

When lawmakers passed the ban on discrimination in schools in 2011, they also barred bias against transgender people in housing, employment, and lending. Legislators left public accommodations out of the bill amid controversy over the bathroom and locker room issue.

Now, advocates are trying to get that final piece passed. And they have built a broad coalition of support, with nearly 200 businesses on board, including Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Google, and all of Boston’s major professional sports teams.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, both Democrats, have come out in support of the bill.

But Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, has consistently parried questions about where he stands, saying “the devil is always in the details.”

Baker opposed similar legislation during his unsuccessful run for governor in 2010, though, and advocates are working to secure the two-thirds vote in the Legislature they would need to overturn a gubernatorial veto.

Carly Burton, campaign manager for Freedom Massachusetts, a coalition of advocacy groups, businesses, and elected officials pressing for passage of the bill, acknowledged that even getting the measure to the floor will be a challenge in an election year.

Some lawmakers are loath to take votes on controversial issues just months before standing for reelection.

But Burton said she is still hopeful that legislators will back “a common-sense bill that would support the transgender community.”


“I think it is likely to pass,” she said, “at least I hope.”

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