Governor Charlie Baker signed into law Friday a transgender public accommodations bill that will allow individuals to use facilities that match their gender identities, capping off a decade of emotional debate on the rights of transgender people in Massachusetts.
The law will allow people to use restrooms, changing rooms, and locker rooms that match their gender identities. It will also protect transgender individuals from discrimination in public spaces such as museums, restaurants, malls, and libraries.
"I am not much of a drinker but I am sure I'll drink this weekend," said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and a lead proponent of the legislation, laughing.
On Friday afternoon, transgender activists cheered their victory, which followed years of divisive back and forth. Over the course of the legislative battle, Baker himself was ambiguous about whether he supported the controversial measure. During his 2010 campaign for governor, he explicitly opposed a transgender civil rights bill. In late May, though, he told the Globe he would support a House version of the bill, which included a provision requiring the attorney general to issue guidance on what action could be taken against people who assert gender identity for an "improper purpose."
But even this week, after House and Senate leaders came to an agreement on the proposal Wednesday, Baker did not explicitly say whether he would support it; rather, a spokeswoman said he would closely study the legislation.
On Friday, though, Baker was clear in his message, signing the bill with little fanfare.
"I've said many times over the course of this debate, for the last 18 months, that no one should be discriminated against in Massachusetts because of their gender identity," he said.
"It's a matter of symbolism," said Kasey Suffredini, who cochairs Freedom Massachusetts, the main advocacy group supporting the bill. "It means so much to me as a transgender person that the government of Massachusetts has my back."
Indeed, said Sarah McBride, a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign and a transgender woman, Baker's switch in position speaks to how conversations about transgender rights and people coming forward with their own stories can change someone's mind.
Not everyone was happy with Baker, though.
"Well, we are extremely disappointed that he signed the bill, which compromises safety of all children and women in the Commonwealth," said Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, one of the bill's leading opponents. "We are also disappointed because this violates his original campaign promise."
The new law will go into effect Oct. 1, though one aspect — the prohibition of advertisements of signs that discriminate against transgender people — will be effective immediately.
Massachusetts' legislation follows a year of particularly contentious debate across the nation on transgender people's rights.
In North Carolina, for instance, the governor signed a bill blocking cities from allowing transgender people to use public bathrooms that match their gender identities. And President Obama faced backlash after he advised public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identities.
Seventeen states already have similar laws.
The Massachusetts legislation was a long time coming. Similar bills had been filed but failed to make their way through the legislative process since at least 2007.
"It's unfortunate transgender people had to wait this long, but we are grateful that it happened and we thank the governor for signing," said Isaacson, who visited the State House earlier in the day to personally thank the lawmakers who pushed for the bill.
As the landmark week drew to a close, transgender activists said they looked forward to ushering in the new law.
Mason Dunn, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, said he was on the phone talking about transgender rights in health care when he learned Baker had signed the bill.
"Suddenly I got a text message saying 'word is he signed it.' And I said, 'This conversation is important, but I'll call back later.' "
He has since been excitedly e-mailing and calling colleagues, and hasn't had much time to reflect.
On Saturday, the Boston Alliance of Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Youth will hold its annual conference. Dunn is sure it will take on a celebratory tone.