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Attorney General Martha Coakley comes out for civil rights protections for transgender community

by Laura Kiritsy

Bay Windows

Friday March 7, 2008

In a move that will likely give momentum to the nascent effort to amend the state's civil rights laws to provide protections based on gender identity and expression, Attorney General Martha Coakley is supporting House Bill 1722, a proposal to put those protections on the books. Coakley will give testimony supporting the bill to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, which will hold a public hearing at the State House on March 4.

Coakley spokeswoman Emily LaGrassa confirmed today that Coakley will submit written testimony in support of the bill. But LaGrassa declined to elaborate on why Coakley is supporting the bill or to release a copy of her testimony in advance of the hearing. "We generally don't comment on testimony until it's actually been submitted," said LaGrassa.

As the state's top law enforcement officer, Coakley is the highest ranking and most influential official to voice support for the bill, which was filed by state Reps. Carl Sciortino (D-Medford) and Byron Rushing (D-Boston). Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who signed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and expression in 2002, has also written to judiciary committee co-chairs Sen. Robert Creedon (D-Brockton) and Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty (D-Charlestown) in support of H.B. 1722 (See Pressing the flesh," Jan. 24). Congressman Barney Frank will also submit written testimony supporting the bill.

Marc Solomon, the campaign director for MassEquality, one of the organizations leading the effort to pass H.B. 1722, praised Coakley's leadership on the issue. "When Martha Coakley stands up for something, she fights for it and we are so proud and gratified to have her fighting for equality for transgender people in Massachusetts. It's a sea change from where we've been in the past. It's so great to have the attorney general - the lead civil rights spokesperson in Massachusetts - fighting on behalf of our community."

When Martha Coakley stands up for something, she fights for it and we are so proud and gratified to have her fighting for equality for transgender people in Massachusetts.

Coakley's support for the bill, said Solomon, "says a huge amount about her and her leadership and we are grateful for her leadership and support and advocacy. It shows that when push comes to shove Martha Coakley stands up for civil rights and we're just extremely grateful and lucky to have her as our attorney general."

Coakley's stance continues her record of commitment to equal treatment for LGBT people under the law. She regularly expressed support for marriage equality on the stump during her 2006 campaign for attorney general, in addition to identifying same-sex domestic violence as an issue to which she as attorney general would be more responsive.

In May 2007, a month before the legislature was to take a decisive vote on an anti-gay marriage amendment, Coakley came out swinging against the measure during a speech to the Mass. Lesbian and Gay Bar Association. "I think we can easily anticipate that if the proposed amendment was successful, there would be protracted, hard-fought litigation about the constitutionality of such a provision. If that battle is necessary," said Coakley, "you have my support." At a fundraiser last year, she suggested that repealing the 1913 law that effectively prevents non-resident same-sex couples from marrying in Massachusetts was the next battlefront in the push for full equality.

Despite those strong stances, however, Coakley's position on adding explicit protections for transgender people to the state's civil rights laws was less comprehensive until now. Asked about including protections based on gender identity and expression in state law during a 2006 interview with Bay Windows, Coakley supported including such protections in the state's hate crimes law but stopped short of endorsing the same changes to its anti-discrimination statute, stating that her own understanding of the law's intent is that gender identity and expression were protected already. (A Massachusetts Superior Court judge has used statutory bans on discrimination based on gender and disability to rule in favor of a transgender woman who had been fired from her job when she began transitioning.)

"If we either had incidents that were unaddressed or a court decision that said it didn't I would certainly be supportive of strengthening the statute if we needed to," Coakley said at the time. "I do know it's hard to get statutory changes; it would take a while to do it. So I'm a big believer in unless it's broken let's work with it. And maybe we develop case law, we develop whatever it is we need to."

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