Mass. Lawmakers Pass Transgender Rights Bill

Associated Press

Wednesday November 16, 2011

Transgender people would be protected from discrimination in Massachusetts under a bill that is close to becoming law after winning Senate passage Wednesday.

The measure was approved by the Senate on a voice vote without debate one day after the House passed it 95-58. The legislation still needs routine final votes in both houses before being sent to Gov. Deval Patrick, who supports it.

Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, said the state's estimated 33,000 transgender residents want to be able to live their lives without fear of discrimination.

"Those same individuals are assaulted simply because of who they are," said Downing. "They are harassed on the job much more often, if not denied employment outright simply because of who they are."

The absence of debate over the bill in the Senate was in contrast to the House, where Democratic leaders moved Tuesday to limit debate to one hour, cutting off many of the 50 or so amendments that had been filed by opponents.

The votes came after supporters of the bill agreed to drop public accommodations language that critics said would lead to a breakdown in privacy in rest rooms, locker rooms and other single-gender facilities.

Critics of the bill claimed a partial win.

"It's a victory for the safety, privacy and modesty of women and children who expect to be safe and secure in public bathrooms in the commonwealth," said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.

Even with that change, however, some House Republicans argued that the bill could potentially hurt small businesses and lead to a flurry of lawsuits. They argued that businesses would be unable to take any action if an employee suddenly began identifying as a member of the opposite sex, causing customers to become uncomfortable.

"It opens the door for social change that would take away the rights of hardworking men and women and parents," said Rep. Marc Lombardo, a freshmen legislator from Billerica.

Transgender advocates pushed back, saying the bill honors Massachusetts' long tradition of protecting civil rights by adding "gender identity or expression" to the state laws against discrimination in employment, housing, insurance and credit. They said 15 other states have such protections.

"Right now it's legal for a business to fire a transgender person for no other reason than their gender identity," said Rep. Carl Sciortino, a Democrat from Medford who backs the bill. "A fully functioning, hardworking individual can be told, 'No, you're not welcome to work here, you're not welcome to live here,' for no other reason than gender identity."

Wednesday is the final day the Legislature planned to meet in formal session before taking a recess through the end of the year.

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