Erica, George, Michelle, they weren’t asking for much, they say. Fairness. Equality. Humanity.
For the transgender community in Massachusetts, Friday was, at once, the culmination of years of lobbying, and the first step on the road to equal rights and protection under the law.
In what advocates call a major civil rights victory, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a transgender public accommodations bill that prevents transgender people from being discriminated against in public spaces and gives them legal recourse if they do experience discrimination.
Behind that law are the stories of the people who struggled for a decade to win passage of the civil rights law and who struggled even longer to feel like themselves.
It took Erica Tobias roughly half a century, two marriages, seven children, and nine grandchildren to become herself.
After her second wife died, Tobias — who at that point had lived as a man for 58 years — decided to confront her life’s greatest conundrum: She knew she was born with the wrong body.
“It’s the one component of my life I was ashamed of,” said Tobias, who is now 61 years old and has fully transitioned to a woman. “It was a constant thought in my mind. You’re always thinking, ‘Oh, it’d be so wonderful if I could be who I am.’ And that drives so much energy from you.”
When her second wife died, Tobias confronted mortality, the fleeting nature of life, and endeavored, for the first time, to be happy with herself.
“I personally had a lot of happiness in my life — happy with people I loved who surrounded me — but I never derived any pleasure from being me,” she said. “One way or another, I had to straighten out this part of my life.”
Tobias’s transition, she acknowledges, was easier than most. She has a loving family who supported her. Others are not so fortunate. The passage of antidiscrimination legislation, Tobias said, marks an important step in assuring that others like her won’t need to wait 50 years before accepting themselves.
“For transgender youth, it’s going to give them the ability to grow up with self-esteem and allow them to be proud of themselves and who they are,” Tobias said. “It’ll open doors and opportunities we were previously denied.”
To understand how the world’s view of transgender people has shifted, consider Tobias’s own family and how different generations responded to her transition. Her grandchildren, she said, accepted her right away, but it took her children slightly longer. Still, she said, they came around.
“I’m a father,” Tobias said, “but I’m also a grandmother.”
When George Hastie met with his state representative in 2011 to advocate for transgender rights legislation, he told the lawmaker it was a civil rights issue. The representative demurred and later helped strip key language from the bill.
That was before Hastie’s transition.
Now, after the 46-year-old Hastie embraced the gender identity he long knew he possessed, his state representative has embraced the comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation.
The tenor of this law, Hastie said, is clear: “Transgender people should be treated as human beings.”
As other lawmakers refined their views on transgender people — mirroring Hastie’s representative — it underscored Hastie’s belief that talking to legislators, building relationships with them, and connecting them with the heart of the issue is paramount.
“Tell people about our everyday lives,” Hastie said, and “people can understand that we’re deserving of respect and love like anybody else.”
Hastie saw this play out when he was at the State House, watching the Senate discuss the latest transgender rights bill. One by one, senators in favor of the legislation quoted or mentioned friends and relatives who identify as transgender.
And this dynamic, Hastie said, works both ways. As the legal climate shifts, it becomes easier for trans people to come out to society. Hastie began his transition in 2014, shortly after President Obama signed an executive order that prevented federal government contractors from discriminating against transgender people.
“It’s certainly not a coincidence that I started transitioning when laws started to be passed,” Hastie said.
Since the age of 4, Hastie said he felt like he was more boy than girl, but societal pressures, again and again, forced him to repress those feelings. Hastie said this new law, and laws after it, will give transgender people not only legal protection, but confidence.
“Those things make a difference,” Hastie said. “They make me feel safer to affirm myself in the gender I was. More people who are transgender can feel like they can be more authentic in our gender.”
Michelle Tat remembers making phone calls on behalf of the transgender rights bill and being scared at what she heard on the other end of the line.
She cold-called people to ask them to contact their representatives and advocate for the legislation. Instead, some people emphatically denounced the bill and vowed to tell state legislators to reject it.
“It’s scary to think that people think these things about me and my community,” she said. “And we’re just trying to live our lives and not bother anyone.”
The 30-year-old said it often feels as if she has a target on her back. She felt that most acutely during her transition.
“I always felt like people were staring,” she said. “I always felt I was on the verge of being judged for being different and not meeting society’s standard of what gender is.”
The law approved last week will go a long way in helping transgender people navigate public spaces, Tat said. But, she insisted, it is not the end of the fight.
“No, no, no, it’s not,” she said. “This was just the beginning.”
Next comes greater access to health care, and fighting discrimination in law enforcement.
“There are so many things in our community that need to be addressed,” she said.
Chief among them, Tat said, is fighting on behalf of her community’s most marginalized population: transgender people of color.
“If we can’t help those folks, how can we help the rest of the trans community?” she said.
The transgender civil rights law represents a good first step, a start, Tat said. But organizers and advocates shouldn’t delude themselves.
“We have a lot of work to do,” she said.Reis Thebault can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @reisthebault