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JOAN VENNOCHI

Adding momentum to the transgender rights bill

A flag representing the transgender community (right) flew next to the state flag in front of City Hall last week.
A flag representing the transgender community (right) flew next to the state flag in front of City Hall last week. Steven Senne/Associated Press

Squeezed by Donald Trump, of all people, Governor Charlie Baker recently put out word he probably would not veto a transgender rights bill — once it gets to his desk.

It could finally be headed there. With a Senate vote now scheduled for May 12, “I’m very hopeful that over the next 90 days, the bill will be on the governor’s desk in a form he feels he can sign,” said Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg.

That puts Massachusetts in the middle of a hot national debate on transgender rights. On Monday, Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina filed suit against the US Justice Department, after federal officials said a state law that mandates people can only use the bathroom that matches the sex stated on their birth certificate violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The DOJ fired back by suing North Carolina. Massachusetts is trying to head in the opposite direction, with legislation that bans discrimination in public accommodations, including restrooms, and allows people to use the facilities where they feel most comfortable.

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Yet even in this supposedly progressive state, pushing a proposal derided by critics as “the bathroom bill” hasn’t been easy. Rosenberg, the first openly gay leader of the Massachusetts Senate, and a champion of LGBT rights, said he understands the underlying resistance: “Most people have never met a transgender individual,” he said. “I just don’t think a lot of people have come to grips with what that means. It’s a form of being different. Being different in any society always creates problems for those who are different. When society wrestles with that, it challenges the norm.”

Baker has taken special heat from activists, including being booed at an LGBT networking event, for refusing to declare support for the bill. Somehow, Trump, the Republican presidential candidate who Baker said could never get his vote, managed to outflank him on the left on this issue. During a TV interview on April 21, Trump said people ought to be able to use whatever bathroom they feel is appropriate. That same day, Baker let it be known he believes no one should be discriminated against based on gender identity.

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The Republican governor can stall on taking a more precise position because a legislature controlled by Democrats has stalled on taking a vote. The transgender rights bill was held in committee long enough to make sure lawmakers faced no opponents. House Speaker Robert DeLeo is also said to be working on a veto-proof voting margin. That would dissuade Baker from voicing opposition, and also give Baker cover with conservatives for choosing not to veto it.

The House version adds language calling for the state attorney general to provide guidance regarding “any person who asserts gender identity for an improper purpose.” Rosenberg said the tweak — designed to address concerns that a sexual predator could use a false gender identity to gain access to female restrooms — is unnecessary. “Anyone who now engages in that behavior is already subject to arrest and prosecution,” he said.

As for Baker’s reluctance to commit to specifics, Rosenberg said, “I’m glad the governor has repeatedly said, ‘I don’t support discrimination.’ That is the principle this bill is all about.”

Massachusetts is known for its liberal social policy, especially after it became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. But that happened via a 4-3 decision by the state’s highest court, not via legislative vote. To Rosenberg, a positive legislative outcome is important to the cause of transgender rights, here and beyond: “We’d be state number 18. We’re adding momentum to a national trend, ” he said.

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The political right and left are both using transgender rights to stir the social policy pot. But Rosenberg is correct. Ultimately, Massachusetts and Baker will have to pick a side — with North Carolina and discrimination or against it.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.