In 2012, Massachusetts passed a landmark equal rights law — it made discrimination on the basis of gender identity illegal.
In so doing, the Massachusetts Transgender Equal Rights Act protected transgender people from being discriminated against in matters of housing, employment, credit, and public education. But at the last minute, legislators stripped a provision out of the bill regarding discrimination in public places. So a restaurant, for instance, could not refuse to hire someone — or fire them — based on gender identity, but it could refuse to serve them. And a transgender person could be denied use of a public restroom.
The absence of the “public accommodation” clause leaves a crucial hole in the law, one that state legislators in the last session tried to rectify. But an amendment proposed by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz languished in the Senate. Now Chang-Diaz is set to resubmit the bill. The Legislature should move quickly to pass the amendment, and Governor Charlie Baker — who has expressed ambivalence about the provision — should support it.
A law that guarantees someone the right to employment but not a right to service is deeply flawed: You can work here, but you can’t eat here. But opponents have taken the bill to task as it applies to public bathrooms, derisively calling it “the bathroom bill.” It seems that lawmakers feel that the sanctity of gender-specific restrooms must be protected against those who were born as one gender and now identify as another. Yet it’s unclear what danger to the public a transgender person presents.
But the harm caused to transgender people by discrimination is real, and the public accommodation clause is not merely a social nicety. A Project Voice survey published last year conducted by the Fenway Institute and the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition found pervasive discrimination against transgender and “gender nonconforming” adults throughout the Commonwealth. The incidents the report cited included being prevented from using public bathrooms and denial of health care. What’s more, it’s widely known among the transgender community that the most unsafe place for a transgender person is a public bathroom, where violent attacks are most likely to happen. In one notorious case, a teenage girl was found guilty of beating a transgender woman outside a McDonald’s restroom in a Baltimore suburb. A video of the incident went viral.
Baker knows better. Transgender access to school locker rooms is already protected by the 2012 law. Despite his resistance to the public accommodation bill (going back to his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, when the openly gay state representative Richard Tisei, who supported the bill, was his running mate), he was an early supporter of gay marriage. His campaign touted the support of his openly gay brother, Alex. In a gubernatorial debate, he chastised as offensive the anti-gay comments made by an opponent. And last week’s inauguration featured a performance by the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, the first performance by a gay chorus at a gubernatorial inauguration in New England.
The base of the Massachusetts Republican Party has not been as LGBT friendly, made clear in the party platform written last year. Here’s a chance for Baker to lead his party — and the state — with a vision the Commonwealth that is inclusive of all.