Opinion

opinion | Mimi Lemay

The truth about the transgender public accommodations bill

Massachusetts could become the 18th state to recognize transgender rights and guarantee equal access to public spaces.
Jim Davis/globe staff/file 2014
Massachusetts could become the 18th state to recognize transgender rights and guarantee equal access to public spaces.

Lawmakers, lobbyists, transgender individuals, and their parents gathered on Oct. 6 at the State House before the joint Judiciary Committee to testify about a bill guaranteeing equal access in public spaces to transgender people.

An “Act Relative to Transgender Anti-Discrimination” extends to transgender individuals the legal protections already afforded to people of color, members of the LGB community, and the differently abled: They may not be harassed in facilities such as restaurants, stores, hospitals, and airports. Detractors, dubbing the proposals “bathroom bills,” are outraged that businesses may be required to allow transgender people to use the facilities of their affirmed gender.

To me this bill is a litmus test of whether my fellow Bay Staters are ready to accept my son, without fear or prejudice, for who he is.

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Jacob is transgender. From the age of 2 he persistently fought his assignment as female. His gender dysphoria manifested in poor body image, low self-esteem, and social withdrawal. After a two-year journey — with a pit stop in each of the five stages of grief — we finally affirmed Jacob’s decision to live as a boy last year. This year, we have discovered how dangerous it may be to be a boy like Jacob.

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“May,” because Jacob has yet to encounter overt discrimination. Our wonderful community and its leaders have gone out of their way to welcome us. Ergo, to Jacob, discrimination is when he gets a smaller slice of pie then his sister.

That is because Jacob is five.

However, one day he will grow up, and seek new horizons and independent experiences. He will leave our home. I cannot hold his hand. My heart will be in his.

The statistics are grim for transgender individuals in the US.

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A 2011 study concluded that 63 percent experienced at least one traumatic incident of discrimination based on their gender presentation. Over half the incidents took place in public spaces. This abuse creates the context for the study’s most somber finding: 41 percent of respondents reported at least one suicide attempt. How many never lived to fill out forms?

This is the primary reason that none of us — parents of transgender kids — wanted to be where we are today: fighting for our children’s lives.

There’s nothing trendy about your child having a one in two chance of surviving through adulthood.

One mom relays that her 12-year-old was forced to use a separate bathroom from his campmates — nearly a mile away. The mother stood vigil all day outside the gates for fear of letting him walk alone. Another tells of her son’s harrowing experience with TSA at Logan, where he was frisked and publicly humiliated during a routine check. Is it any wonder in this environment of persistent bigotry that the emotional health of transgender people is severely compromised?

Today Jacob is a kindergartner. With large brown eyes, a round face, and a lisp, I can’t imagine anyone kicking him out of a restaurant, any more than I can imagine someone kicking a puppy in the street. And yet, I can’t ignore the sobering reality of his brethren and sisters, nor the rising body count of those murdered for an existence offensive to those who cannot comprehend it.

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My child is the center of my universe. I can’t understand what others fear and hate in him.

I am baffled by the moral outrage evinced at the idea of giving him the right to a measure of decency.

Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, testified against the legislation, evoking the right to privacy and safety of women and girls across the state. Passing the bill, he railed, would enable a predator to “expose his very male genitalia” to Beckwith’s 5-year-old daughter.

Beckwith’s comments are so deeply hurtful not only because they are completely unfounded (no crimes of this nature have been reported in the 17 states that passed such statutes), but because they harken back to one of the ugliest eras in our past when the sanctity of wives and daughters was used as the mob’s excuse to lynch innocents.

I, too, have daughters: one older and one younger than Jacob. I can empathize with a parent’s fear for their child’s safety but I cannot condone baseless fearmongering.

Lives will depend on our ability to separate reality from fantasy. The “transgender-person-as-frustrated-sexual-predator” myth is an insidious meme that has no place in a society that values human rights. While there is no evidence that a transgender person is more likely to engage in criminality, there is evidence that a transgender person has more to fear in a public bathroom than I do. What is true is that without laws protecting him, my son may find himself kicked off a bus on a highway, or refused treatment in a hospital, with impunity. Attorney General Maura Healey said it best: “Discomfort is not a reason to perpetuate discrimination.”

Laws frequently follow changes in society, but they can also precede them, signaling what behaviors are and are not acceptable. As a state, we risk losing the moral leadership we gained by being the first to legalize same-sex marriage. We stand to be 18th in recognizing transgender rights. It’s time to catch up. If we don’t, it may be too late for my son.

Mimi Lemay, a Massachusetts resident, is the parent of a 5-year-old transgender son, Jacob.