PITTSFIELD >> Did you know, today, in the year 2015, there is class of people who are not protected by law as to where they can eat, sleep, shop, and even use the bathroom?
While we'd like to believe that all persons, especially here in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, are afforded such protections under the law, the truth is that in public places transgender persons are not protected under current law.
In 2011, the Massachusetts legislature passed An Act Relative to Gender Identity – which I'm proud to say was filed in the Senate by Sen. Ben Downing of Pittsfield — that allowed Massachusetts to become the 16th state to add nondiscrimination laws for gender identity in the areas of employment, housing, K-12 public education, and credit. It also ensured that Massachusetts Hate Crimes laws included gender identity — as defined in the 2011 law as "a person's gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person's physiology or assigned sex at birth.
Open to discrimination
However, protections in public accommodations was left out of the final bill. Therefore, transgender persons are still susceptible to discrimination in any place that is open to the public and provides goods and services. According to a national transgender discrimination survey, 58 percent of Massachusetts respondents "experienced verbal harassment or mistreatment in public accommodations like hotels, restaurants, buses, airports and government agencies because they were transgender."
The gap in the law boils down to this: businesses cannot discriminate in employment against transgender persons, but have the right to deny them services as customers.
It is clear that this loophole needs to be addressed, and we have an opportunity to remedy this with the proposed legislation, the Act relative to Transgender Nondiscrimination (H1577 & S735), otherwise known as the Transgender Accommodation Bill. Filed by Reps. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston) and Sen. Chang-Diaz (D-Boston), offers transgender persons full protection under the law, allowing them to enter and use public accommodations without fear of discrimination or subjective reproach.
On Oct. 6, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary listened to testimony from individuals and families who shared their experiences of discrimination. The legislation is now under review and there are several more steps before the full legislature will have an opportunity to vote on it.
I am hopeful that this legislation will move forward to provide a full measure of protection to those vulnerable to discrimination, and as a member of the Democratic caucus, I am especially proud to note the staunch advocacy efforts of so many of my colleagues toward this effort.
At the core of this legislation is basic civil rights under the law. However, I am cognizant that the subject of transgender persons — those with either assistance from medical intervention or by visible presentation who transition to a different gender — is a provocative issue and something new for a lot of people. There are a lot of people who don't understand, and I am admit, I don't understand everything about the subject.
What I am crystal clear is this: I believe you don't have to understand everyone's perspective, or agree with it, to realize that every person deserves equal protection under the law.
The proposed legislation is good news for individuals like Ella DeGiorgis, a transgender woman who was a guest on my public television show, Berkshires to Beacon Hill, earlier this month.
DeGiorgis, who said she considers herself an activist, described her concerns including worrying about if the restaurant she frequents will allow her to use the bathroom or if a gym membership will allow her access to appropriate changing facilities. "It makes it hard to enjoy a full life," she said.
You can't get any more basic than having the right to use a restroom. Interestingly enough, there actually is no law that specifies males and females must use their gender-assigned restroom, noted Representative Provost, who was also a guest on my show; rather, enforcement is something that occurs through social custom.
And while these are basic rights, opponents of the legislation view it much differently. Dubbed "the bathroom bill," opponents believe the legislation legalizes predators to go into girls' bathrooms and carry out assaults. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Current data simply does not point to incidents of transgender individuals using gender identity to harm people. The proposed law does not sanction criminal activity – it has always been illegal for anyone to enter a restroom to either harm or sexually harass another individual.
Another important area to note is that this bill would not place any mandates on the school systems across the commonwealth to change their policies. Since 2011, school districts have been, and continue to, make arrangements, as they best determine, to accommodate needs of transgender students.
As stated before, I understand that this is an issue that will generate spirited discussion, and that's always a good thing. But it is my hope that in the midst of the conversation, we don't lose sight of the fact that a lack of understanding of individual perspectives should never impede basic rights under the law.