Governor Charlie Baker’s speech to LGBT executives and activists Wednesday night was met with a cascade of boos after he refused to voice support for a bill to prevent bias against transgender people in public spaces.
Baker’s reluctance to take a stand on the bill prompted many in the crowd at the Marriott hotel to boo and loudly chant “sign the bill!” before he walked off stage about 20 minutes into his highly anticipated remarks.
The event’s organizers had said Baker would mingle with the crowd after his speech, but he left without meeting with the attendees.
More than 1,000 business leaders packed the hotel ballroom for the 10th Annual Boston Spirit LGBT Executive Networking Night, hosted by Boston Spirit magazine, in the hopes of hearing Baker either declare support for the transgender bill or at least pledge not to veto the measure if it reaches his desk.
But Baker infuriated many in the crowd, some of whom held signs that read “Trans Rights Now,” when he hedged.
Baker said he would “make sure I talk to all the parties involved” if the legislation comes to him. He also did not say whether he would veto the bill.
After the event, a spokeswoman for the governor said in a statement, “Governor Baker concluded his speech where he reiterated his belief that no one in Massachusetts should be discriminated against, praised attendees for their courage and urged the transgender community to continue to advocate for their beliefs. He supports the 2011 legislation that expanded protections to transgender individuals and looks forward to reviewing additional legislation should it reach his desk.”
Prior to the confrontation on stage, Baker touted his early support for gay marriage rights and efforts to make state contracts more widely available to LGBT-owned small businesses.
But his noncommittal posture on the transgender bill had a profound impact on many in the crowd, including Eli Godwin, 38, of Medford, who cried as Baker left the stage.
“I really thought he was going to be a leader” with his speech, said Godwin, who recently moved back to Massachusetts under the assumption that the state already had comprehensive transgender protections.
“I kind of felt like I was coming home to the land of safety,” said Godwin, who was wearing a “Trans Rights Now” button.
Another demonstrator, Colby Patrie, 22, of Georgetown, held a pro-transgender sign during the speech and said afterward, “I’m very disappointed as a transgender person.”
The bill in question, known as the public accommodations bill, would prohibit bias against transgender people in restaurants, shopping malls, and other public areas.
Earlier in his speech Wednesday, Baker drew applause when he told the crowd that “we should not discriminate against anyone in Massachusetts.”
He also touted the fact that his running mate in his unsuccessful campaign in 2010, Richard Tisei, was an openly gay Republican.
But after he said his administration would “continue to” discuss the pending transgender bill, many in the crowd voiced displeasure with boos and allegations such as, “you won’t even take a meeting!”
His speech came less than a week after the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce rescinded its invitation to have him speak at a gala in Washington, D.C., later this month.
The chamber was angered over Baker’s decision to attend the Republican Jewish Coalition’s spring meeting last weekend in Las Vegas, which included staunch conservatives such as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Pastor John Hagee, who vociferously opposes gay marriage.
The chamber had also chafed at Baker’s reluctance to take a stand on the transgender bill.
The imbroglio highlighted challenges faced by Baker, a supporter of gay marriage and abortion rights, in trying to build bridges to national Republicans while maintaining his moderate image.
In a related development Wednesday, Massachusetts Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce that the Senate plans to debate the transgender bill next month.
Rosenberg said North Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, where transgender rights have also been a flashpoint recently, showed that “denial of equal rights is not only hurtful to real people” but also has dire business implications, according to a transcript of his remarks.
“I know that the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce supports the Public Accommodations Bill,” Rosenberg said. “And kudos to you.”
Few in the crowd at the Marriott offered kudos to Baker after his speech on Wednesday night.
“It was extremely disappointing,” said Bob Caravana, 69, of Lexington. “He paid lip service to the cause. He’s been sitting on the fence on this thing for how long?”
Caravan added that “it’s unconscionable” that under current law, his son can be asked to leave a restaurant simply for being perceived as transgender.
He said the pending bill seeks to prevent that and insisted, “We don’t want [Massachusetts] to be North Carolina.”
Watch video of the speech below:
Joshua Miller and David Scharfenberg of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.