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Transgender Public Accommodations Bill Remains Stalled In Mass. Legislature05:48
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Gov. Charlie Baker won't say whether he supports the bill, which would expand anti-discrimination protections for transgender people from the areas of housing and employment to include public accommodations -- such as gender-segregated restrooms. Here, a sign marks the entrance to a gender-neutral restroom at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont. (Toby Talbot/AP/File)
Gov. Charlie Baker won't say whether he supports the bill, which would expand anti-discrimination protections for transgender people from the areas of housing and employment to include public accommodations -- such as gender-segregated restrooms. Here, a sign marks the entrance to a gender-neutral restroom at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont. (Toby Talbot/AP/File)
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As North Carolina faces backlash over the approval of a bill that blocks local governments from passing anti-discrimination rules to protect gay and transgender people, a bill to expand legal protections for those populations here in Massachusetts remains bottled up in a legislative committee.

With only four months left in the Legislature's annual session, time is running out to pass the measure, which seeks to prohibit discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations — and a lot of questions remain.

The bill (S735, H1577) picks up where a previous law left off almost four and a half years ago. That law, enthusiastically signed by then-Gov. Deval Patrick in 2011, extended protections for transgender people by banning discrimination in the areas of housing and employment.

A controversial provision to expand that law to include public accommodations — meaning restaurants, lodging, gender-segregated changing rooms and restrooms — was removed from the 2011 bill to ensure passage of the broader legislation.

Backers of the bill intended to take up public accommodations in another session. Supporters say now is the time.

It Could Boil Down To Baker's Perspective

"I have confidence that the Legislature will pass this bill," said Carly Burton, campaign manager for Freedom Massachusetts, the group behind the bill.

"We have great support both from the speaker and in the House, as well as from the Senate president and in the Senate," Burton added. "We also have a wide variety of businesses and unions and all sorts of other entities, women’s groups, domestic violence prevention groups, that have come out in support of this bill."

And no one argues that if the vote on the bill were taken today it would have more than enough support to pass.

The lingering question in 2016 that did not exist in 2011 is: Will the governor sign it into law? Unlike his predecessor, Gov. Charlie Baker won't say.

"As I said before, we certainly support non-discrimination in Massachusetts for anybody," Baker said following a leadership meeting last month. "But the details on this are important, and I know the Legislature's working on it, and we'll look forward on seeing what they will produce."

The governor's reluctance to say what he ultimately will do is frustrating the bill's supporters.

Joe Lemay, of Melrose, is the father of a 6-year-old transgender boy.

"It's one thing if Charlie Baker wants to be a laggard on civil rights, but how dare he put Massachusetts in a position to be the laggard in civil rights when we, for our whole history, have been a leader in civil rights but not on this issue," Lemay said. "It just doesn’t make sense."

As a candidate in his failed bid for governor in 2010, Baker said he would veto similar legislation.

But the governor has been taking the time to study the issue as of late. Last fall, he met with members of the transgender community, including 14-year-old Nicole Talbot, of Grafton.

"There were several other people there and I think we got our stories across to him. He didn't say much. He still stayed very neutral on this issue," Talbot said. "But we said, 'Oh we hope you're considering the bill.' And he said, 'You wouldn't be here if I wasn't considering it.' And so I think, it was still a very neutral statement — but it wasn't a negative, but it wasn't a positive, either."

It Could Be All About The GOP Base

Opponents of the legislation have been making their case as well, in the hopes the bill will remain stuck in committee.

"The Legislature has a responsibility to protect the rights and privacy of women and children in public restrooms, showers and locker rooms. So that's paramount," said Jonathan Alexandre, legal counsel for the Massachusetts Family Institute. "We've been here before. In 2011, when the transgender bill was passed, the Legislature specifically removed public accommodations, understanding that that wasn't an area that would create a safe situation for the citizens here in Massachusetts."

Efforts to bring the bill to a vote earlier in the session were unsuccessful, and with Baker's position on the bill still publicly unknown, House Speaker Robert DeLeo is holding off on bringing up the bill until he is certain he would have the two-thirds vote needed to override a veto should the governor issue one.

Former state Rep. Susan Tracy said Baker is likely staying noncommittal so as not to aggravate the conservative Republican base that opposes the legislation.

"The governor has taken some positions that probably have alienated that base — whether it’s trying to take over the party, which we’ve read about, or bringing some Democrats into his administration or working closely with the Legislature — so I’m sure that there are members of the conservative Republican base who are not happy with him," she said. "And perhaps he sees this as an issue where he is appealing to or appeasing that base."

Some incumbent legislators in competitive swing-districts are also concerned about a potential challenge from a conservative opponent. That could be keeping DeLeo from securing the 107 votes needed to override a veto.

"If you're that person who’s in a district, I think your biggest fear is that someone will take one vote that you’ve made out of the many that you’ve made, or all of the issues that you’ve worked on, and really actively try to run a campaign against you on that vote," Tracy said.

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee has until May 2 to report out the bill.

That happens to be the day before nomination signatures must be turned in for candidates running for the Legislature, meaning Democratic House incumbents from districts that lean conservative will at that point know if they face opposition in November.

This segment aired on April 1, 2016.

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Steve Brown Twitter Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.

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