Mass. lawmakers debate transgender rights bill

by Bethany C. Farnham

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday July 16, 2009

Transgender activists and others from across Massachusetts gathered on Beacon Hill on Tuesday in support of a bill that would add gender identity and expression to the Commonwealth's anti-discrimination and anti-hate crimes laws.

Representatives from the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the Massachusetts Transgender Political Caucus and others rallied in support of House Bill 1728, a bill that would give protection to trans people by updating the current hate crime laws to cover gender identity and expression. The bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Carl Sciortino (D-Medford) and Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) is based upon similar legislation in Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island and other states. Both supporters and opponents testified before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary during a hearing that took many hours. Co-chaired by Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem (D-Middlesex) and Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty (D-Chelsea), the committee will vote on whether to push HB 1728 further in the legislative process.

"We hear every day from people who are not hired, or are harassed in school, or are evicted because they are transgender," MTPC director Gunner Scott said. "This bill would give them the legal tools to protect themselves."

Massachusetts has indeed seen its share of trans-related violence. GLAD reports several incidents during the past few years, including a 2004 case in which a landlord told a trans tenant he would evict her unless she started "looking like a man." Three 19-year-olds allegedly beat Jenine Nickola, a trans woman from Lowell, in June 2007.

The bill, which was previously shot down during the last session, has been nicknamed "The Bathroom Bill" because of inclusion of public rest room and shower facilities - a portion of the bill with which many opponents take issue. A panel of representatives from health clubs testified about the comfort of customers. They cited many bathroom users may not directly distinguish a trans person as the gender they identify.

Other components complained sexual predators could presumably dress as the opposite gender in order to gain access to bathrooms, a charge HB 1728 supporters described as an offensive and horrific comparison. Lawyers from the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based conservative organization, testified the bill would "punish public expression of religious beliefs."

"We hear every day from people who are not hired, or are harassed in school, or are evicted because they are transgender. This bill would give them the legal tools to protect themselves."

"[This bill has] a fundamental conflict with the First Amendment," Timothy Tracey said. "No one should be required to affirm a man is a woman, or a woman is a man, against their sincerely held religious beliefs."

ADF cited a New Mexico case in which a photographer was brought before the state's Human Rights Division after refusing to take photos for a same-sex commitment ceremony. Supporters of the Massachusetts bill contend, however, it's written exactly the way it needs to be. And that it doesn't throw any existing laws out the window.

"It's a really important bill...and it's clear that there's a lot of misunderstanding," Jennifer Levi, director of the Transgender Rights Project at GLAD and law professor at Western New England College, said. "The bill reflects the approach that's been taken in the other states and the District of Columbia. Massachusetts would be well-served by being able to rely on established laws in other places in order for our courts to answer any hard questions."

Opponents also noted the equal opportunity policies many private business have established in order to protect anyone from discrimination on the job. Microsoft and Bank of America and other corporations have added gender identity and expression to their nondiscrimination policies. Microsoft's policy worked well for Dana Zircher, a senior software design engineer who is also transgender.

"But a transgender person has never negatively affected my ability to perform my job responsibilities," she said during her testimony. "I have become even more driven to succeed for the company that told me I was important to them."

Attorney General Martha Coakley and Gov. Deval Patrick are among those who have backed HB 1728, but there remains a chance lawmakers could once again strike it down. Opponents may fear their rights would be stifled, but activists insists the bill merely extends basic rights to trans Bay Staters, and that it will work successfully, as it does in the other 13 states and the District of Columbia.

"Massachusetts need not fear that by explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression, it will be entering into uncharted territory," Levi said.