Advocates focus narrowly in new legislative session

by Ethan Jacobs

Bay Windows

Saturday January 10, 2009

In the midst of an economic crisis that will no doubt occupy much of the legislature's time, LGBT advocates have their sights set on two goals as the start of the new legislative session: to pass a transgender rights bill and to try to protect state funding for LGBT and HIV-related programs.

MassEquality, the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), and their coalition partners have made passage of the trans rights bill - which would add protections based on gender identity and expression to the state's non-discrimination and hate crimes laws - their top priority this session, and the groups will spend the next two months working to recruit cosponsors of the bill to give it momentum before an expected Judiciary Committee hearing. Advocates will also work to preserve LGBT and HIV funding as Gov. Deval Patrick prepares to make an emergency $1 billion cut to the current budget and puts together his budget proposal for the next fiscal year.

Marc Solomon, executive director of MassEquality, said he believes the transgender rights bill is in a stronger position to pass this year than in the last session. The Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill last year, but it died after no further action was taken. In the last session, which ran from 2007 through 2008, the trans bill was one of several LGBT-related items on the legislature's agenda; in 2007 lawmakers took a landmark vote to defeat a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and last summer it voted to repeal a 1913 law that had been used to block out-of-state same-sex couples from marrying in Massachusetts and to pass a law recognizing same-sex marriages for the purpose of granting Medicaid benefits. Solomon said lawmakers complained last session of LGBT-issue fatigue, but that will not be the case this time around.

"I think the difference is people have had a little more time to learn about the issue. Last time was the first year the bill had been introduced, so it was an educational process. And honestly, last legislative session as well was a very heavily marriage-focused session, and there was a sense from some legislators ... that they had done enough LGBT legislation last session, so that was an obstacle we were challenged with," said Solomon. "This year we're going to the legislature with one very clear priority, and it's passing the transgender non-discrimination and hate crimes bill."

Gunner Scott, executive director of MTPC, said the bill would be filed Jan. 14. As in the last session Reps. Carl Sciortino (D-Somerville) and Byron Rushing (D-Boston) will file the bill in the House, and for the first time the bill will also be filed in the Senate, by Sen. Ben Downing (D- Pittsfield). Scott said if the bill emerges from the Judiciary Committee, having versions of it filed in both the House and the Senate will give advocates more flexibility.

"Once it gets out of committee either the House or the Senate bill can be moving," said Scott.

MTPC's campaign to pass the bill begins in earnest Jan. 13 with a town-hall meeting at the Community Church of Boston. Scott said MTPC will discuss its work over the last year and its plans for the new session, and will solicit feedback from community members. Sciortino will also be on hand to discuss the bill.

After that meeting, MTPC will spend the spring holding community forums across the state to build grassroots support for the transgender rights bill. Scott said MTPC expects to hold forums in the Worcester area, on the North Shore, on the South Coast, and in Western Massachusetts. MTPC also plans to hold a second lobby day on Beacon Hill in support of the bill; a lobby day in May 2007 drew more than 100 participants and marked the first lobby day for transgender-focused legislation in the state's history.
MassEquality will also be putting its political muscle behind the trans bill. Solomon said the organizaton would hold its own community forums across the state in an effort to convince people who were active during the marriage fight to get involved in pass the transgender rights bill. Solomon said he will ask MassEquality's gay and lesbian supporters to fight for the bill both as a matter of social justice and because the bill will offer protections to the entire LGBT community.

"It's not that difficult to get people to that place because gay and lesbian people are discriminated against for their gender identity and gender expression," said Solomon.

MTPC, MassEquality and their allies will also be working to get legislators on board. Last year the bill had a total of 25 co-sponsors, including lead sponsors Sciortino and Rushing, and Scott said this time around advocates hope to have at least twice as many. Advocates have until the first week of February to sign on co-sponsors; Solomon said they hope to get enough to show that the bill has strong support from lawmakers.

"Our first benchmark is to get as many cosponsors on this bill as we can. ... We're really shooting high. I would like to see dozens of legislators on this bill," said Solomon.

MassEquality will also be letting lawmakers know that the political powerhouse will be paying close attention to their stance on the bill in making future endorsements. Up through last year's election MassEquality made its endorsement decisions solely based on whether candidates voted with them on marriage equality, but this session MassEquality will give strong preference to legislators who cosponsor and vote in favor of the trans rights bill.

"What we're saying is it's not enough to be good on marriage equality for MassEquality," said Solomon. "We want a state where all forms of discrimination against people who have a different sexual orientation or gender identity or expression are treated equally, and we intend to make sure that happens, or do anything in our power to bring that about by the end of 2009."

Scott said he expects the bill to get another hearing before the Judiciary Committee, and as with last year's hearing MTPC and its coalition partners will encourage trans people and their families and allies to testify before the committee about the importance of providing equal protections to transgender people. He said one encouraging development about the campaign for the trans rights bill has been that many members of the transgender community have felt newly empowered to advocate for their rights.

"The days of us just taking the crumbs, those are over. We pay our taxes, we contribute to society, and we should be treated just like everyone else," said Scott.

Staunching the bleeding in the budget

In most years LGBT and HIV/AIDS advocates push for funding increases for their state-funded programs, but this year they are on defense, working to hold onto the money they have. Last October, as a result of the economic downturn, Gov. Deval Patrick made nearly $1 billion in emergency budget cuts, and the state's LGBT youth and HIV/AIDS funding both took hits. Patrick recently told the press he expects to make another $1 billion in emergency cuts, and advocates worry that their programs could once more be on the chopping block. The governor is expected to release his proposal for the Fiscal Year 2010 budget shortly, and advocates also hope to receive at least level funding in new budget.

Rebecca Haag, executive director of AIDS Action Committee (AAC), said while HIV/AIDS advocates normally lobby the governor and lawmakers for additional funding, there is little hope for a funding increase in next year's budget.

"We'd like to see no further cuts in either the '09 budget or proposals in the '10 budget. ... I think realistically the hope is to maintain. Maintenance really means less money to serve ever-increasing numbers of people, so even maintaining represents some shortfalls for many agencies," said Haag.

In October's round of cuts HIV/AIDS programs lost $1.5 million, including about $600,000 cuts to direct services.

AAC was one of ten organizations that signed a letter to Patrick last month urging him not to make further cuts to the state AIDS budget and asking him to endorse a statewide strategic plan to eliminate new HIV infections in the state. The signers, including AAC, Fenway Community Health, JRI Health, and the Multicultural AIDS Coalition (MAC), are part of a newly launched initiative called the Massachusetts Coalition to End HIV. Jonathan Scott, executive director of Victory Programs and one of the coalition's founders, said the goal of the coalition is to strengthen the lobbying effectiveness of HIV/AIDS advocates. For many years those advocates were represented on Beacon Hill by the lobbying coalition Project AIDS Budget Legislative Effort (ABLE), but in January AAC resigned from its position on the Project ABLE steering committee over dissatisfaction with the coalition's effectiveness. Following AAC's departure other longtime members of Project ABLE, including Scott, publicly expressed similar concerns about the coalition's work.

Jonathan Scott said the Massachusetts Coalition to End HIV is not intended to undercut or replace Project ABLE but to work in tandem with it and to develop a more compelling message to bolster their lobbying efforts. The new coalition's working group includes Project ABLE supporters including Fenway's Henia Handler and MAC's Gary Daffin.

"People are meeting regularly, are putting fires in everybody's jets, because we've got to act now and we've got to act fast, and I think my goal is to just get people more than enthusiastic but to really build a case for the relevancy of HIV funding and policy, which we feel has been really diluted and lost since around 2001," said Jonathan Scott.

Patrick cut $150,000 from the Department of Public Health's (DPH) LGBT youth program funding in October, but DPH was able to shift funding from other areas to reduce the cut to $50,000. Jacob Smith Yang, chair of the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth, said advocates and officials have told the commission that even getting level funding in the FY10 budget will be a difficult fight. But Yang said the commission might still press for additional funding.

"I think we talk to the legislators and the administration about what the need is, and we end up coming up with a request that is reasonable, and I think we're still working on that," said Yang. "I think as advocates for LGBT youth we're always looking to increase the resources. That's where my mindset is. The fact of the matter is these programs have never been fully funded. ... Not to ask for more is very difficult, seeing the needs that we're seeing in the GLBT youth population."

Solomon said MassEquality will be working with LGBT youth and HIV/AIDS advocates, as well as LGBT domestic violence and elder advocates, to try to hold onto what funding they have during the expected budget cuts.

"It's going to be a super-challenging year for dollars," said Solomon. MassEquality will work with advocates and leadership on the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees to "make sure we're collectively making our strongest case for the dollars, and also being realistic," said Solomon.

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