After months of taking heat for ambiguity on a deeply controversial issue, Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday he would sign a transgender public accommodations bill should it reach his desk.
His declaration marked the beginning of the end of a bitter, years-long legislative battle over the rights of transgender people in Massachusetts.
“We’ve certainly listened to a variety of points of view from many sides and have said, from the beginning, that we don’t want people to be discriminated against,” Baker said in an interview with The Boston Globe. “If the House bill were to pass in its current form, yeah, I would sign it.”
The bill approved by the Senate and the version that is set to be passed by the House on Wednesday would allow people to use the restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity and would protect transgender people from discrimination in barber shops, malls, libraries, restaurants, and other public accommodations.
The bathroom provision has raised sharp concern from opponents who assert that male sexual predators, under the guise of being transgender women, could enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms. Proponents of the bill say those worries are unfounded and not borne out by the almost 20 states that already have similar protections.
The House version, unlike the Senate’s, would require the attorney general to issue guidance on when and how action can be taken against people who assert gender identity for “an improper purpose.” That’s partly to address safety worries from opponents, House leaders say. But it’s also seen as an overture to Baker and to state representatives from socially conservative districts hesitant to embrace the bill.
Baker made a point of saying he backs the House bill as it is written now.
“I support the House version, which, I believe, supplies the right amount of clarity with respect to the public safety questions that other people have raised,” Baker said.
He said those queries have been raised “by a number of people, fair-minded and well-meaning people, I believe.”
But he tempered fears of predation, noting that all K-12 schools and most colleges and universities “have been operating under what, in effect, is a policy that’s pretty similar to this one for the better part of the past several years without incident.”
Baker’s comments in support of the bill will have a big impact on the House debate over the legislation Wednesday, said Arline Isaacson, a top lobbyist for the bill and cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
She said it shifts the calculus for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo because he no longer has to look for enough votes to override a potential gubernatorial veto. That, insiders say, could allow some conservative Democrats to vote against the measure without imperiling its passage into law.
Baker’s comments have “just changed the dynamic a thousandfold for the better,” Isaacson said.
But Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which opposes the bill, noted there are several amendments pending and no guarantee that the House’s current version will be what reaches Baker’s desk.
He declined to criticize Baker but said “if the current House version stands, we don’t think its supposed safeguards are sufficient” and emphasized the group will make that clear to the governor.
“What the Legislature has done is abdicate their responsibility by punting on the details to the attorney general,” he said, expressing worry that Attorney General Maura Healey, a strong supporter of the legislation, would dismiss the concerns about the bathroom provision.
Discussion of transgender protections has permeated national political discourse this year. Backlash over a law in North Carolina that mandates people use only the bathroom that matches the sex stated on their birth certificate has been strong and widespread. Last month, the Obama administration said public schools must allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, prompting 11 states to sue.
The Massachusetts House bill, in another difference with the Senate’s version, mandates that the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination make rules and regulations protecting transgender people from discrimination.
House leaders say that language, together with the requirement for the attorney general to issue guidance, would help ensure that transgender people won’t be unreasonably harassed for proof of their gender identity. It will, they say, also help businesses know what they can legally ask about if there is some question about a person’s gender.
Despite the differences between the chambers, Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg has said the additional House language doesn’t fundamentally undercut the purpose and the principles of the legislation. This is an indication that, should the House pass its version Wednesday, the Senate is likely to agree to it. Rosenberg declined to comment Tuesday through a spokesman.
Baker’s declaration marks a shift in his position. For months, he’s taken pains to avoid articulating a clear stance on the bill, while emphasizing he opposes discrimination against anyone. State House insiders have parsed his words trying to divine his position.
And Baker has taken heat — including being publicly booed at a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender networking event in April — for declining to take a stance on the bill.
But in recent weeks, his aides have more directly telegraphed his openness to the House version of the legislation.
Baker’s statement Tuesday is sure to anger some social conservatives, already upset with the Republican for reshaping the state GOP in his more moderate image. At the same time, Baker’s support for the transgender public accommodations legislation could boost the popular Republican’s center-of-the-road credentials with voters, should he run for a second term in 2018.
Transgender protections were at issue during his unsuccessful 2010 bid for governor. Baker campaign literature characterized a transgender civil rights bill as the “bathroom bill” (seen by some as a derisive phrase) and said he would veto the legislation.
Baker later supported a different version of that bill, one that did not include public accommodation protections. That legislation became law in 2011.
Asked Tuesday if his new stance is flip-flopping, Baker said it is not, noting the bills — the versions in 2010 and 2011, and this year’s — are all different.
Yet advocates who have been working on transgender rights issues for years say the only substantive difference between the 2010 bill and the 2011 bill was that it excised the same public accommodations provisions that are now poised to become law.
Baker couched his change this way: “I would characterize it more as a clarification than an evolution, I guess.”Joshua Miller can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos. Click here to subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on politics.