Amidst a flurry of activity on high profile measures such as casinos and criminal law reform, the Massachusetts Legislature also made civil rights history last week by passing the Transgender Equal Rights Bill. In the words of Judiciary Chairman Eugene O’Flaherty, whose steady leadership and stirring floor speech was critical to the bill’s passage, "There’s this small, discreet group of individuals that this will literally change their lives." Indeed, it already has.
The Transgender Equal Rights Bill at long last adds essential protections for the Commonwealth’s transgender community in jobs, housing, schools, and credit, as well as in situations where people face hate-based violence. This will make an immediate difference in the lives of our state’s transgender residents: seventy-six percent of transgender people in Massachusetts have reported experiencing harassment or discrimination on the job; seventy-nine percent have been harassed in school; seventeen percent have been denied an apartment or home; and fifteen percent, which is five times the general population, have been pushed into poverty -- all due to anti-transgender bias.
We are thankful for the leadership shown on this bill by Governor Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray, Judiciary Chairman Eugene O’Flaherty and Judiciary Chairwoman Cynthia Stone Creem, lead House bill sponsors Representatives Carl Sciortino and Byron Rushing, and lead Senate bill sponsors Senators Ben Downing and Sonia Chang-Díaz. We’re also thankful, of course, to all those lawmakers who voted for the bill.
For those not following this issue closely, the passage of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill may have seemed sudden. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. This victory comes as the result of years of advocacy and hard work by many, and we are particularly thankful to those who leveraged their leadership roles as public servants to finally pass this bill.
Gov. Patrick proudly championed transgender equality in his campaign for his second term, and transformed our state government with the stroke of a pen by signing an executive order last February prohibiting anti-transgender discrimination in state hiring practices. He also publicly encouraged lawmakers to pass a bill protecting everyone else in the state.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo publicly announced his intention to pass transgender civil rights over two years ago at a MassEquality event. When the House voted on the bill last Tuesday, it was a culmination of the Speaker’s particular leadership on the legislation over the past six months, during which he met multiple times with constituents, advocates, and House members to listen and learn more about the bill. When opponents of the bill filed more than 40 amendments with the explicit purpose of killing it, DeLeo’s leadership team not only squelched their efforts, but also they prevented the passage of any amendments that would have weakened the bill’s needed protections.
Chairman O’Flaherty met with constituents and advocates in early March during a community meeting in Chelsea, shortly after a transgender woman had been violently beaten in his House District. He respectfully listened to advocates and encouraged us to schedule a follow up meeting with his chief of staff. In the ensuing months, he and Chairwoman Creem saw through the fierce and angry rhetoric from opponents of the bill, who whipped up controversy with false and misleading advertisements that aired on AM talk radio stations, steering the bill out of committee and through to passage in both chambers.
O’Flaherty had an answer to the disingenuous claims by the bill’s opponents that House leaders were stifling debate when he noted, during his moving floor speech on the bill, that the legislation had been under consideration for close to six years, that discrimination against transgender people in Massachusetts is well-documented, and that the Joint Committee on the Judiciary had held three public hearings on the bill totaling more than 36 hours of debate.
Reps. Carl Sciortino and Byron Rushing and Sens. Ben Downing and Sonia Chang-Díaz worked doggedly for years to lift up the stories of transgender people and bring more of their colleagues along in making the case for the urgent need for transgender equality in Massachusetts. They spoke out for equality early, publicly, passionately, and consistently. They educated themselves and their colleagues. They convened teams of lawmakers in their respective chambers who became vocal champions for transgender people inside the State House and out. But most importantly, they cared. They cared about their constituents and everyone in the Commonwealth to encourage the legislature to send a clear message that all people are equal and all people matter in the state of Massachusetts.
That kind of political leadership is something to be thankful for.
As is often true in the art of lawmaking, this bill is not perfect -- it omits critical protections for transgender people in public accommodations such as restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations and other places where we routinely conduct our daily lives. But we can celebrate that today transgender people in our state have historic protections they’ve never before had, but desperately need and deserve. To paraphrase many who’ve made this point, which can be found in the Book of Matthew, and has been variously attributed to Ghandi, Samuel Johnson, and Dostoyevsky, society’s greatness is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Today, the Commonwealth is a much greater place than it was two weeks ago.
Kara Suffredini is Executive Director of MassEquality.