For Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, transgender rights today is like gay marriage a decade ago: the next big battle for equality.
“Transgender rights is the important next battleground for civil rights,” Healey, a Democrat, said in an interview with The Republican / MassLive.com. “We need to do more, and we need to do better in this state, starting with a public transgender accommodation bill.”
Healey, the nation’s first openly gay attorney general, has made gay rights a priority since taking office in January. She led 16 states and Washington, D.C., in filing a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court asking the justices to establish gay marriage nationwide. She asked Massachusetts residents to share their stories about gay marriage, for use in the Supreme Court brief. She is now setting the stage for what could be a battle with the Republican administration of Gov. Charlie Baker over a transgender public accommodations bill, which would require accommodations for transgender people in public places, like restaurants.
“It’s a priority for me, and it’s where we need to be when it comes to civil rights,” Healey said.
The public accommodations bill is the current legislative priority of gay rights groups in Massachusetts. In 2011, the Legislature passed a bill adding non-discrimination protection for transgender people in employment, housing, credit, education and similar areas. But a mention of public accommodations got stripped out during debate. The public accommodation provision drew opposition from those who dubbed the bill “the bathroom bill,” out of fear that it would require public places to allow a transgender man to use a women’s bathroom and vice versa.
A standalone transgender public accommodations bill, sponsored by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, is pending before a legislative committee. Western Massachusetts co-sponsors include Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, and Rep. Jose Tosado, D-Springfield.
Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito oppose the bill, citing logistical concerns from organizations like schools and hospitals. Opponents of the bill worry, for example, about whether someone born male would have access to a girls’ school locker room.
Andrew Beckwith, president of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, said a public accommodations law would give a transgender person access to sex-segregated areas like bathrooms and locker rooms. He pointed to a 2010 case when a transgender woman, who was born a man, was arrested for refusing to leave a women’s bathroom in a Boston shelter. The woman sued the city, which has its own transgender public accommodations law, and Boston paid $20,000 in a settlement, according to the Boston Globe.
“That’s what the public accommodations bill would do statewide,” Beckwith said. “That confirms for us the concern we have that this would violate privacy and safety of all citizens, particularly women and children.”
But Mason Dunn, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, counters that the existing anti-discrimination law already covers public schools, and schools have not reported problems with transgender students using bathrooms or locker rooms. Dunn said the existing law would allow someone to be turned away from a coffee shop, hotel or public transportation because he is transgender. The existing law, he said, covers “some discrimination, not all.”
Discrimination against transgender people, Dunn said, “is not something we can ignore … It needs to be resolved.”
Northampton, Amherst and Worcester have all passed city-level public accommodations laws covering transgender people.
Healey, like other bill supporters, says the bill would prevent a transgender person from being denied service at a restaurant. Healey called the concerns about bathrooms a “harmful myth.” “Our Fortune 500 companies have figured out a way to make it work in the workplace, I sure expect them to figure out a way in public buildings and other places of public accommodation,” Healey said.
In a recent op-ed on MassLive.com, Healey argued that more protections are needed for transgender people. She has pointed out that transgender youth, similar to gay and lesbian youth, are disproportionately bullied and harassed, and have higher rates of suicide and mental health problems.
Healey said on a state level, there should be more education on these issues and more resources to get LGBT youth and adults counseling, shelters and other services.
Healey said similar to the way Massachusetts has become accustomed to same-sex marriage since it became legal in 2004, “I’m confident in time people will see transgender rights in the same way.”
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