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Controversial transgender bill headed for vote in House, Senate

(Pat Greenhouse/globe staff/file 2007)

A controversial transgender antidiscrimination bill that has long languished on Beacon Hill appears poised to become law after a series of rapid-fire developments at the State House on Friday, including the strongest indication yet from Governor Charlie Baker that he would not veto the legislation should it reach his desk.

House lawmakers released a new version of the bill, which would protect transgender people from discrimination in malls, restaurants, and other public accommodations — and allow people to use the public restroom that matches their gender identity.

Baker, who has come under fire for not taking a position on the issue, including being publicly booed, offered a careful but broadly positive take on new language Friday.

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“Governor Baker believes no one should be discriminated against based on gender identity and appreciates the added clarity that the House’s revisions provide into how the provision would be implemented across the Commonwealth,” said Baker’s top spokesman, Tim Buckley.

Opponents of the legislation claim that male sexual predators, under the guise of being transgender, could enter women’s restrooms. The new House version of the bill aims to address those worries. It would empower the attorney general to issue guidance on when or how legal action may be taken against people who assert gender identity for “an improper purpose.”

Despite some reservations from advocates for transgender rights, the fresh language drew quick support from perhaps the highest-profile backer of the effort, Attorney General Maura Healey.

Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg both support the thrust of the legislation, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature is now expected to pass the measure in the coming weeks.

Discussion of transgender protections has intermittently dominated the national political discourse this month — from a backlash over a law in North Carolina that mandates people can use only the bathroom that matches the sex stated on their birth certificate, to comments from Donald J. Trump inviting Caitlyn Jenner, the highest-profile transgender person in the country, to use any bathroom she wants in Trump’s signature New York hotel.

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On Friday, the cochairmen of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, Senator William N. Brownsberger and Representative John V. Fernandes, told the Globe that committee members were being polled on two versions of the bill. Late in the day, lawmakers gave both versions a positive recommendation.

The chairmen said one version — the original — will go to the Senate for a vote, set for May 12. The other version, which has been rewritten, is headed to the House.

Fernandes, in a telephone interview, said the House’s fresh language strengthens the bill by “setting rules of the game for people to work by. So transgender people won’t be unreasonably harassed for proof of their identity, and so that businesses will know what they can reasonably inquire if, in fact, there is some question raised.”

The House version adds language mandating that the state attorney general’s office issue guidance on those who assert gender identity for “an improper purpose.”

Fernandes said the new language is partially aimed addressing opponents’ concerns about male predators using the law to enter female bathrooms, though he said he has not uncovered any evidence of that kind of activity in other states that have such a law.

“We want to flesh out how someone who thinks a person is using this statute for an improper purpose — whatever that might be — can bring their concerns to law enforcement,” he said.

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The original version of the bill gave the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination the authority to make rules and regulations protecting transgender people from discrimination in public accommodations. The new House version mandates that it must.

The original version also would have the changes take effect right away. The House version would make the bill effective at the beginning of next year. Fernandes said that delay is to give the attorney general and the commission time to come up with the new regulations.

“We’ve been talking to a lot of people and doing a tremendous amount of research on this bill. We’ve reached out to every other state that has this law,” he said, adding that the changes are the results of more than a year of intensive work.

Healey, a strong and vocal supporter of transgender rights, came out Friday in support of the House version.

“This is a big step in the right direction and she looks forward to action by the full House as soon as possible,” said the attorney general’s top spokeswoman, Cyndi Roy Gonzalez.

Brownsberger, the Senate chairman, said he believes both versions of the bill “are intended to fully protect transgender people from discrimination.”

But Arline Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, a registered lobbyist and a top advocate for the bill, offered a more carefully worded take on Friday’s developments.

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“We applaud the judiciary committee for moving forward on this important bill, and we are anxious to see the best version of this legislation arrive on the governor’s desk,” she said. “We hope the governor will sign it.”

Matt Wilder, a spokesman for Freedom Massachusetts, the main advocacy group supporting the transgender rights bill, said, “We’re really pleased with the developments on the bill today. But we do have some questions about the redraft, and we look forward to working through those in the next few weeks with lawmakers.”

He said he hoped Massachusetts would soon join the 17 states that already have similar protections in their laws.

But Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, slammed the House rewrite.

“This version of the bill offers no protections to women and children who don’t want to be ogled by or exposed to naked men in locker rooms and other intimate spaces,” he said in a statement.

Instead, Beckwith continued, “It gives special regulatory powers to the attorney general, who is on record telling the millions of women and children in Massachusetts who are concerned about the bathroom bill’s threat to their privacy and safety, to just ‘Hold it.’ ”

DeLeo, the House speaker, lauded the new version in an unusually effusive statement.

“This bill is the result of extensive conversations with members, advocates and the business community,” he said. “I am proud that through these discussions, the House has strengthened this important piece of legislation.”

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Rosenberg, the Senate president, said he is glad to hear the committee is planning to release the bills.

“The Senate has been prepared to debate this since November, and we will go forward as planned on May 12th with our debate,” he said. “It is imperative that legislators get a bill to the governor’s desk as quickly as possible to end discrimination under the law for all transgender individuals.”


David Scharfenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos and subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on politics at bostonglobe.com/politicalhappyhour.