Social change, one personal story at a time

A flag representing the transgender community (right) flew next to the state flag (left) and an American flag at Boston City Hall.
A flag representing the transgender community (right) flew next to the state flag (left) and an American flag at Boston City Hall.Steven Senne/Associated Press

When the Massachusetts Senate finally passed a controversial transgender rights bill last week — 33-to-4 — every Democrat in that progressive chamber unsurprisingly voted “yes.” And, so did one Republican, Senator Richard J. Ross of Wrentham.

As one of only five Senate Republicans, Ross broke ranks with his tiny herd of colleagues. He did so after telling fellow lawmakers how he learned that his two children are gay. His then college-age daughter said she knew it from a young age. A few months later, his son said he, too, had something to tell him. Tears rolled down his son’s cheeks as he told his father he worried about the impact on his political career. Ross said he cried, too, as he told his son how proud he was of him. Linking that experience to the Senate transgender rights bill, Ross said parents are simply looking “for their kids to be whomever they happen to be, to be loved for whoever they are, and to be given the freedom to be who they are as individuals and to live successful and happy lives. And that’s what this boils down to.”

A version of the Senate bill is expected to be taken up in the House. Asked his advice for Governor Charlie Baker, a fellow Republican who has yet to say what he will do with a bill once it gets to him, Ross said: “Sign it.”

During the Senate’s often emotional debate, lawmakers connected a bill that would prohibit discrimination against transgender people in public places, including restrooms, to a broader battle for civil rights. But as Ross showed, a personal connection can be the tipping point on policy matters that usually break down along partisan lines. In an even more dramatic example, US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, is now an advocate for transgender rights after learning her child, born female, now identifies as male. “The Republican Party’s stance on the issue is lagging behind. But folks are figuring out that there is no political harm in embracing these issues and, in fact, they see a lot of good can come of it,” she told the New York Times.

Even in Massachusetts, in a Legislature dominated by Democrats, the transgender rights bill is controversial. Its passage last week in the Senate was significant. On the same day of the Massachusetts vote, President Obama issued an executive order requiring public schools to let transgender students use the bathroom in which they feel most comfortable. Meanwhile, North Carolina and the US Department of Justice are battling over a law that requires transgender people to use a restroom that matches the gender identity on their birth certificate.


Civil rights votes and social change votes are always very, very challenging,” said Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg after the vote. He said he knew Ross was a probable supporter after he voted “yes” to bring the bill out of committee, but couldn’t be certain until the formal Senate vote. He also knew Ross’s personal story, but not every Senate colleague did. As for the four Republicans who voted against the measure, Rosenberg said, “I believe that all of the Republicans were struggling with this in the sense they care just as much about what happens to other people as the Democrats. But their party comes from a different place and it puts them in different situation in a debate like this.”

It’s not the first time Ross came through for a socially progressive cause as a lawmaker. In June 2007, as a House member, he cast what some consider the deciding vote to stop a constitutional amendment that would take away marriage for gay couples. At the time, Ross said he did it after meeting with same-sex couples and hearing their personal stories.

He learned about his children afterwards. With last week’s vote, he publicly embraced his family’s personal story.

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