Last Wednesday, Mighty Governor Deval signed into law the Transgender Equal Rights Bill. A week earlier the bill cleared the Massachusetts legislature with a 95-58 vote in the House and a voice vote in the Senate, where 16 out of 40 senators signed on as co-sponsors. The signing, which was private in light of the upcoming holiday, validated years of effort on the part of transgender rights activists from across the state and country. The Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), which spearheaded the push for the equality bill, announced that a public signing ceremony will be held in the near future.
The final bill, similar to those passed in fifteen other states and D.C., extends state non-discrimination laws covering housing, employment and education to include gender identity, regardless of whether said identity “is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth.” It also broadens the definition of hate crimes to include those committed on the basis of gender identity.
Essentially, wherever Massachusetts General Laws address discrimination or civil rights protection with respect to “sexual orientation” or “gender,” HB.3810 expands the scope to “gender identity” more inclusively.
The Governor, House Speaker DeLeo and Attorney General Coakley have all supported the legislation since it was first introduced in 2007. The ACLU of Massachusetts likewise praised the bill for extending non-discrimination and hate crimes protection to transgender people.
Elated as they are, trans rights advocates acknowledge that the bill falls short of true equal protection. The final bill omits a previous provision that ensured access to public accommodations (which includes hotels, restaurants and recreation facilities in addition to bathrooms and locker rooms) based on gender identity, a weakness advocates vow to correct as they press on. As written, then, the bill bars all discrimination in employment at such public establishments, but not refusal of service on the basis of gender identity.
ACLU attorney Gavi Wolfe calls the omission of public accommodations protections “an obvious gap” in the law’s coverage, adding that it is “hard to imagine any justification for why one group of people should be treated differently” in terms of access.
Governor Patrick has vowed to push for adding public accommodations protections to the bill during the next legislative session.
The MTPC has worked since 2001 to amend Massachusetts discrimination and hate crimes law to include gender identity. In October 2002 allied transgender and LGBT groups secured a Boston city ordinance to ban discrimination based on gender identity--Boston residents can take pride in the fact that the city ordinance extends protections to public accommodations. The statewide bill builds on transgender advocates’ success in bringing similar ordinances to Amherst, Cambridge and Northampton, MA. Since the bill was introduced in 2007, MTPC and partner groups have held a number of lobby and education days with partners MassEquality and GLAD, dropping thousands of postcards and briefing sheets to legislators.
“Education around transgender people is about 15 years behind,” said MTPC executive director Gunner Scott. “Our campaigns focused on telling the stories of transgender youth and families.”
“This is not a perfect bill,” said Scott after the bill cleared the Senate, “but it sends the message that transgender people cannot be discriminated against. MTPC was certainly hoping to move the full slate of non-discrimination protections [including access to public accommodations] forward, but achieving rights and equality is not all-or-nothing. We plan on introducing a bill for the 2013 legislative session for those public accommodations protections.”
Supporters hope that the bill will spur acceptance and openness within the state toward the trans community, estimated to include some 33,000 residents of Massachusetts. “We’re pleased that the legislature waited not a moment longer to advance these urgently needed protections,” beamed Kara Suffredini, head of MassEquality, upon the bill’s passage. “For the first time, transgender residents will be included in our state’s statutes, prohibiting the unfair and unjust discrimination they have faced for far too long.”
Too long, indeed. Legislation like this rightly chips away at the stubborn (and, frankly, embarrassing) barriers standing between us and a society we can earnestly call equal. It is a credit to our state and the free expression of everyone in it to define an individual identity.
“It is a huge thing for transgender people to be who they are openly in society,” concluded Scott. “This is a victory.”