An historic voice vote gets the proposed legislation one step closer to the Governor’s desk.
More than 30,000 transgender Massachusetts residents could receive vital protections against discrimination now that the Transgender Equal Rights Bill has been passed by both the House and Senate. Pending a promised signature from Gov. Deval Patrick (D), the bill will become law after waiting six years in the Legislature, legally protecting transgender individuals from discrimination in housing, employment, and credit, as well as additional civil rights and protections from hate crimes.
"An Act Relative to Transgender Equal Rights" (House Bill 502 and Senate Bill Number 764) -- known as the Transgender Equal Rights Bill -- was passed by the Massachusetts Senate on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 16. It was approved by the House on Tuesday with a final vote of 95 to 58.
The bill "codifies and builds on existing protections," Jennifer Levi, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders’ (GLAD) Transgender Rights Project Director, told Bay Windows. The proposed legislation adds the terms "gender identity and expression" to existing anti-discrimination. According to a draft of the bill obtained by the State House News Service, the proposed legislation defines gender identity as "a person’s gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance, or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth."
"It’s a good day," MassEquality Executive Director Kara Suffredini told Bay Windows on Wednesday, enumerating the allies in the House and Senate whose support was critical to the bill’s passage.
Suffredini listed Reps. Carl Sciortino (D - Medford) and Byron Rushing (D - Boston); Sens. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D - Jamaica Plain) and Ben Downing (D - Pittsfield); House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D - Winthrop); Senate President Therese Murray (D - Plymouth); and House Chair of Judiciary Committee Eugene O’Flaherty (D - Chelsea) and Senate Chair of Judiciary Committee Cynthia Stone Creem (D - Newton).
According to Suffredini, it’s only a matter of time before Patrick signs the proposed legislation into law. The governor is "one of the most vocal champions for transgender equality in Massachusetts," Suffredini said. Patrick went so far as to submit written testimony supporting the bill to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.
The legislation indicates that when signed, the law will go into effect July 1, 2012. The Governor has previously indicated his strong support of the bill and advocates expect him to sign it into law with all due haste.
Upon the bill’s signing, Massachusetts would become the sixteenth state, along with the District of Columbia, to legally prohibit discrimination against transgender individuals.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley joined advocates in praising the bill’s passage through House and Senate. "This legislation is the next step in our forward path of extending equal protections to all citizens and eradicating discrimination in our Commonwealth," Coakley said in a statement to Bay Windows. "For too long, transgender people have suffered in silence in seeking employment, safe housing and educational opportunities. This legislation puts Massachusetts on a course for ensuring a better, and fairer, future for our residents and makes clear that people are entitled to equal protection regardless of their gender identity or expression."
The Transgender Equal Rights Bill was released from the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on Tuesday, Nov. 15 -- an historic move celebrated by the bill’s advocates, as it was the first time the proposed legislation had been released from the Committee. It was the hope of all that the bill would pass through the House and Senate and land on the Governor’s desk as quickly as possible.
The bill can’t become law soon enough, according to transgender civil rights advocates. A report released in February of this year revealed that 76 percent of transgender residents in Massachusetts have been harassed on the job because of their gender identity; 20 percent have lost their job because of their gender identity; and 17 percent have been denied a promotion because they are transgender.
"The Massachusetts legislature today recognized that transgender residents should be treated equally and protected under the law," said Human Rights Campaign (HRC) President Joe Solmonese on Nov. 16. "The Transgender Equal Rights Bill has languished for years, but today the Legislature sent a clear message of fairness and equality."
The version of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill that was voted upon by House and Senate, however, does not include public accommodations protections -- examples of which include protected use of public restrooms, as well as any facility that is open to the public such as a library, hotel, or hospital, to name just a few.
Despite its absence from the proposed legislation, however, existing case law may already provide protections for transgender persons in those cases. "There’s a number of different protections in Massachusetts law," Levi told Bay Windows. In the bill that has been passed by the House and Senate and is awaiting enactment, there are "no explicit protections on the basis of gender identity" when it comes to public accommodations. However, Levi noted that the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) has interpreted existing sex discrimination laws to potentially protect transgender individuals as well. Since discrimination against transgender individuals in public accommodations often occurs "because of another person’s perception or understanding of that individual’s sex or gender," Levi said, existing case law could be used to protect transgender persons.
Although public accommodations protections for transgender Massachusetts residents technically exist, "it’s essential to include gender identity in public accommodations law," Levi said, noting that GLAD is committed to that addition. The Transgender Equal Rights Coalition, invaluable in the passage of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill, will continue to work on the addition of "gender identity and expression" to public accommodations law. Members of the coalition include MassNOW; ACLU of Massachusetts; Jane Doe, Inc., The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence; National Association of Social Workers, MA; Mass AFL-CIO; Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders; Mass Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus; Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition; and MassEquality.
"This is not the end of our fight, and MTPC is committed to getting public accommodations protections for our transgender youth, adults, and families. MTPC plans on introducing a bill for the 2013 legislative session for those public accommodations protections," said Gunner Scott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. "For now, let’s be proud of the difference this bill will make in the daily lives of thousands of people across the state who need jobs, a safe place to live and access to education."
Despite the absence of public accommodations in the list of civil rights protections included in the bill, the passage of the legislation in House and Senate "does constitute an important first step toward remedying discrimination against the transgender community in critically important areas," Arline Isaacson, Co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus, said in a statement.
"Today the House formally recognized that transgender people suffer from unfair and unjust discrimination in employment and housing," said Isaacson following Tuesday’s House vote. "The bill they have passed addresses those concerns clearly and directly."
Critics of the bill’s passage weren’t far behind advocates’ rejoicing. Kris Mineau, President of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, celebrated the lack of public accommodations in the bill’s protected enumerations. "It’s a victory for the safety, privacy and modesty of woman and children who expect to be safe and secure in public bathrooms in the Commonwealth," Mineau said in a statement to press. He continued to lament the bill’s passage. "Every school child should be required to watch this legislature in action, to watch a one-party system ram through radical legislation with virtually no debate -- it’s shameful and does not befit the history of our great state or what our founders dreamed for a government ’by the people, for the people.’"
"There are opponents who have attempted to stoke fears about the implications of this bill," AG Coakley said. "In doing so, they grossly mischaracterize what this bill does and who it protects. This bill only increases our ability to prosecute criminal conduct and protect the civil rights of all, and does nothing to restrict our ability to protect victims of any crime."