As the clock ticks down on the current Beacon Hill legislative session, with both houses under pressure to get through mountains of complicated, sometimes controversial legislation, one especially controversial bill seemed poised for swift passage. Until it wasn’t.
That would be the Transgender Public Accommodation bill, which guarantees right of access by transgender individuals to places of public accommodation such as restaurants, concert halls, shopping malls, theaters, public parks, hotels, and gyms. Advocates in both the House and the Senate have worked hard to guarantee this important civil right in state law and have passed versions of the bill with overwhelming majorities — 33-4 in the Senate, 116-36 in the House. But now, with disputes over differing language in the two versions of the bill, the Legislature seems poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The bill, whose virtues have been argued by this page several times, is meant to close a loophole in the 2011 Transgender Equal Rights Act, which protected against gender identity discrimination in matters of housing, employment, public education, and credit but failed to guarantee equal access in matters of public accommodation. So a restaurant could not deny you a job based on your gender identity, but it could refuse to serve you or let you use the bathroom.
Governor Charlie Baker, who had opposed the 2011 legislation, signaled that he would approve the House version of the new bill, which contained language calling for the attorney general to issue “regulations or guidance” regarding legal action against anyone asserting “gender identity for an improper purpose.” That seemed to satisfy House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who wanted to pass a bill that was veto-proof.
But that language is not included in the Senate bill. Furthermore, the House chose not to adopt the emergency preamble of the Senate bill, which would make the bill effective immediately upon being signed into law by the governor. Instead, the House has asked that the bill not become law until January 2017. It is essentially with these two points of difference that the bill has now been passed to a conference committee for review, with sniping from both sides appearing in the press.
That’s a shame. Advocates for the Senate bill make some valid points: Since public accommodation is a civil rights issue, any delay in its implementation is unnecessary. The bill does not require the creation of special bathrooms or locker rooms, only that transgender people be allowed access based on their gender identity.
And the phrase “improper purpose,” which is also part of the 2011 law, seems intended to quell unfounded fears that someone might put on a wig and dress so as to gain access to a women’s bathroom or locker room for the purposes of spying, harassment, assault, or other predatory behavior.
That said, the House language reflects a compromise that was hard-won, after much heated debate, and after extensive testimony on Beacon Hill from transgender people who had experienced discrimination.
The conference committee that is now trying to hammer out a compromise should do so post-haste, and the Legislature should make sure the bill gets to Governor Baker’s desk ASAP. As we’ve seen all too often in Washington, a legislative body that insists on ideological purity is one that rarely gets anything done.