Governor Baker and the Legislature appear to be stuck in a game of chicken on an important piece of legislation. The game needs to stop, and the legislation needs to be called for a vote.
To be specific: The Transgender Public Accommodation Bill is one of a couple dozen bills awaiting action in the House. It should be among the easiest to pass. The bill protects transgender people — those labeled at birth as one gender who now identify as another — from discrimination in public places such as hospitals, restaurants, shopping malls, theaters, public parks, hotels, and gyms. Filed by state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz and Representatives Byron Rushing and Denise Provost, the bill closes a loophole in the 2012 Transgender Equal Rights Act, which protected against gender identity discrimination in matters of housing, employment, public education, and credit. But opponents forced the stripping out of the crucial public accommodation clause. The upshot: A restaurant could not refuse to hire you based on gender identity, but they could refuse to serve you or let you use the restroom.
The bill has garnered widespread mainstream support, from the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association to all four of the state’s big league sports teams. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has announced his support for the bill, and state Attorney General Maura Healey has launched a social media campaign in favor of it. Some version of the bill already exists in 17 other states. What’s more, transgender access to locker rooms in the state’s elementary and high schools is already protected by the 2012 law.
So what’s the hold-up? House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the Globe’s Joshua Miller in January that, although he supports the bill, he felt it necessary to marshal a veto-proof majority before calling a vote because he felt “uncertain where the governor may be going or not going on this bill.” Baker opposed the transgender bill when he first ran for governor in 2010 and has been noncommittal ever since. His spokesperson told the Globe’s Miller only that the governor was looking forward to reviewing the legislation should it reach his desk.
True, the governor can’t be blamed for all legislative inaction. But in this case, it’s difficult to see the downside to his voicing support. There has been squeamishness expressed about the bill because of privacy issues, even though public restrooms include private stalls. And some of its more extreme opponents, who have derisively referred to it as the “bathroom bill,” have raised fears of sexual predators, a fear completely unsupported by evidence. No incidents have been reported in relation to the law’s implementation in the public schools.
In fact, opponents have it backwards: Transgender people are the ones in need of protection. Members of the transgender community have reported incidents of harassment and being denied access to restrooms and other places of public accommodation. And they commonly speak about needing to plan their day according to the locations of “safe” public restrooms, a frame of mind that’s unimaginable for most everyone else. The recent action by the North Carolina legislature to overturn all gay and transgender protections shows the kind of discrimination transgender people are up against.
“The bill is very simple,” Healey said in a statement to the Globe about the Massachusetts proposal. “It doesn’t require businesses to build new facilities. It doesn’t require special treatment of any kind. It’s legislation that says, we care about your safety and security and we will strengthen our laws to protect you from harassment and affirm the dignity and respect that transgender people deserve.”
If Governor Baker has problems with the public accommodation bill, he should say what they are. And House Speaker DeLeo should call a vote. This bill has been waiting long enough.