‘Bathroom bill’ pushed on Beacon Hill

Originally published by the Sun Chronicle on April 1, 2016.

BOSTON — Transgender rights advocates are hoping that the backlash against North Carolina following its rollback of controversial gender identity legislation will spur Massachusetts lawmakers to take action on a bill that has lingered in committee for months.

“I think the amount of pressure and pushback received by (North Carolina) has elevated this issue here in Massachusetts in a way that has hopefully galvanized folks to take action on this bill,” said Carly Burton, campaign manager for Freedom Massachusetts, an advocacy group pushing for a transgender anti-discrimination bill in the state.

The bill would ban discrimination against transgender people in all public accommodations, also permitting transgender people to use restrooms aligned with their gender identity, instead of their anatomical sex.

North Carolina received criticism from local corporations and national politicians last week after passing a law that requires people to use restrooms aligned with their anatomical sex, and prevents cities and towns from passing anti-discrimination ordinances of their own.

A similar “restroom bill” has been filed on Beacon Hill, raising the possibility of a debate on the issue in Massachusetts. But, local legislators aren’t so sure the situation in North Carolina will make a difference in Massachusetts.

“I don’t think that the ignorance at best and hate at worse concerning the state Legislature’s overreach into municipal affairs on transgender rights in North Carolina will influence what happens in Massachusetts,” said Rep. Paul Heroux, D-Attleboro, who supports the transgender rights bill.

Proposed last year, S.735/H.1577, has not moved from the joint Judiciary Committee since January 2015. Toward the end of 2015, House Speaker Robert DeLeo came out in support of the bill, but declined to take it up before House members broke for winter recess.

In March, legislators extended the deadline for members to report the bill out of committee, drawing criticism from some advocates and state leaders who want to see the bill brought to a vote sooner.

But, some advocates believe the extension is a good thing.

“It’ll give us more time to work on legislators,” said Christine Poff, chapter political director of the National Association of Social Workers in Massachusetts. “We want more time to get this passed. We want them to change their position.”

Just days after the controversial legislation in North Carolina was passed, more than 800 students and social workers gathered at the Statehouse for the organization’s biggest lobby day of the year — Social Worker’s Advocacy Day.

The annual event provides educational workshops and lobbying exercises on pending legislation deemed a priority for the social workers association.

One of the bills — the anti-discrimination legislation — drew almost 75 people to an LGBTQ workshop before attendees left to target six legislators who said they were on the fence about the legislation.

“Legislators usually don’t see that many advocates on one day,” Poff said. “So it’s pretty big.”

Poff said she also hopes the pushback toward North Carolina will help compel Massachusetts legislators to “act in a more positive way” and support the legislation.

She said the national attention may help legislators realize that Massachusetts is falling behind by delaying progressive gender identity legislation.

“Massachusetts holds itself out as a blue state, as progressive, as wanting to be No. 1 in all kinds of ways,” she said. “But already there are 17 states that have a trans-rights protection bill, so Massachusetts is behind.”

But, state lawmakers may be asked to consider a different course.

A bill filed by Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut, would limit access to public bathrooms and locker rooms to a person’s anatomical sex. Whether or not the bill, also in the judiciary committee, winds up before the full Legislature, it is likely to spark debate among state voters.

Last November, 60 percent of Houston residents voted to reject a law that guaranteed protections based on a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity after a year-long campaign that saw opponents focus on the bathroom issue, leading critics to label it “the bathroom bill.”

Poff said the anti-discrimination legislation is necessary to protect the civil rights of transgender people, many of whom face discrimination in public places every day.

More than 65 percent of transgender people in Massachusetts say they have experienced discrimination in public accommodations, according to the Freedom Massachusetts website.

In 2011, legislators were hesitant to include public accommodations in a bill banning discrimination in schools, housing and the workplace because of pushback from opponents who said the law would infringe on the safety and privacy of women and children by allowing biological-males to access female restrooms.

Since then, the new bill has won the support of several state leaders, including Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Attorney General Maura Healey.

Heroux said he supports the legislation and wrote to the House speaker asking for a vote, but could not say if the bill would come to the floor this session.

Rep. Betty Poirier, R-North Attleboro, said she would need to see the final language of the bill before deciding, noting that “the devil is in the details.”

Poirier said she wasn’t sure if the North Carolina legislation would impact the progression of the bill in Massachusetts because the two states have very different philosophies and preferences.

She said she believes the issue hasn’t come for a vote yet because the House speaker is polling his members, trying to ensure he has enough votes to override a veto should Gov. Charlie Baker decide to reject the legislation.

The governor has remained mum on the issue.

DeLeo told reporters last week that the controversy in North Carolina has not created much buzz around the House and that the issue did not change his stance on the bill.

But the House speaker would not say if the bill was still a priority for this year.

“I’m not going to say it’s not, but it’s still a work in progress,” he said.

Sen. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, a member of the Judiciary Committee said after that he has been talking with constituents about the issue.

“It is of the utmost importance to me that all Massachusetts citizens feel safe and protected under the law and have a strong faith in their government to pass legislation that will make them feel safe and protected,” he said in an email. “I oppose any and all forms of discrimination and I am proud of my record of support for LGBT rights.”

The committee now has until May 2 to decide the fate of the bill.

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