BOSTON >> Another heated controversy over transgender rights — this one involving Red Sox pitching great Curt Schilling — put the spotlight back on top Massachusetts public officials Thursday as Gov. Charlie Baker again defended his reluctance to take a firm position on a public accommodations bill while Attorney General Maura Healey bemoaned the "ugly commentary" that surrounds the debate.
By referring to the transgender anti-discrimination legislation that's been pending on Beacon Hill nearly all session as the "bathroom bill," opponents of the bill are degrading the issue behind it and deteriorating the public debate of it, Healey said Thursday morning.
"The whole discussion of this as a 'bathroom bill,' quite frankly, that is something that opponents use in an effort to sort of devolve the discussion and degrade it," she said. "At the end of the day, all this is about is making sure that as people come through the door here or a movie theater or a restaurant or walk into City Hall, that they're not told to leave or kicked out or harassed simply because of their gender identity."
Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said his organization opposes what it refers to as "the bathroom bill," but does not want anyone to be harassed or kicked out of public places.
"The reason why this bill is referred as the bathroom bill is because that's focused in on where there are real concerns about privacy and safety for an overwhelming majority of residents, especially women and children," Beckwith said. "No one is arguing that individuals with gender identity issues should be prevented from using a movie theater or a hospital, but there are some facilities that are lawfully sex-segregated for what should be very obvious reasons. That's where the rubber hits the road."
Healey, an ardent and vocal supporter of the bill, decried the "ugly commentary" around the issue of transgender rights during an interview conducted by Boston University professor and former NECN anchor R.D. Sahl as part of Denterlein's "In the News" speakers series.
"I'm sorry to see some of the ugly commentary because this is, I think, a simple, straightforward piece of legislation but really, really important, particularly for the transgender young people," she said.
Asked about ESPN firing former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling after he shared a Facebook image that many found offensive to transgender individuals, Healey said the 2004 American League Championship Series hero "should have stuck to baseball."
"What he said was, I think, emblematic of some of the bigoted, discriminatory statements we've heard in the rhetoric," the attorney general said.
During a radio appearance Thursday afternoon, Baker stopped short of directly critiquing Schilling's commentary or offering an assessment of ESPN's move to fire him, while opining that public personas should show respect and tolerance for everyone.
"People in public life are generally held to a higher standard with respect to what they say and how they say it, and I think it's usually important — in this day and age especially, given all the vitriol that's out there — that people in public life demonstrate — and big public organizations demonstrate — respect and tolerance for everybody," Baker said during his regular appearance on Boston Public Radio.
Baker, who said he has "known Curt for years," said he "didn't want to get into a discussion about what ESPN chooses to do or not do."
Baker's lack of a public position on transgender legislation has worried and angered activists — who booed him at Boston Spirit Magazine's LGBT Executive Networking Night last week.
"I've been booed before and I expect I'll be booed again," Baker said. The governor said his lack of lobbying in either direction on the transgender bill is in keeping with an often hands-off approach his administration takes toward interfering with the House and Senate lawmaking process.
The governor distinguished his active encouragement of the Legislature to adopt certain opioid abuse prevention measures as engagement over a bill he had filed. The governor and his administration have also not been shy about pushing for his hydropower legislation, and airing deep concerns with the Senate's approach to charter schools and public education funding.
The transgender bill (H 1577/ S 735) was filed by Reps. Byron Rushing and Denise Provost and by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz. It has yet to move out of the Judiciary Committee where it was assigned last year.
"On stuff we file, we engage pretty actively," said Baker, noting there are exceptions, such as when he took a passive stance on solar legislation he filed while the House and Senate worked out differences in their competing bills.
The transgender bill would prohibit discrimination against transgender people in public spaces, and would allow transgender people to use the public restroom or locker room that matches their gender identity — the most controversial aspect.
Pressed by co-host Jim Braude on why he has not given direction to the Legislature on the bill, Baker said he respects the "separation of powers" between the executive and legislative branches.
Baker has continually said he wants to read any bill the Legislature passes before deciding whether he would sign it, often saying "the devil is in the details" on this and other pieces of legislation.
Both House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg support the bill, though DeLeo has said he wants to ascertain whether the House has the votes to override a veto in case the governor rejects the bill.
DeLeo, Rosenberg and Baker have regular near-weekly closed-door meetings together, but a spokesman for Rosenberg said the Senate president has not discussed with Baker what he would veto and what he would sign with regard to transgender legislation. Spokesman Pete Wilson told the News Service that Rosenberg "believes that the bill is straight forward and should be approved in its current form."
A spokeswoman for DeLeo said the speaker's office does not comment on private conversations.
Rosenberg has said the Senate will debate the issue in May or early June.
Calling it "an important piece of civil rights legislation," Healey said the bill is "something that I'd like to see the Legislature vote on as soon as possible and I hope and expect that Gov. Baker will sign it into law."
Baker told Braude and co-host Margery Egan he treats the Legislature as an "equal partner," and said, "I don't think we should discriminate against anybody."
The governor, who has a gay brother and supports gay marriage, said he takes "tremendous pride" in having been on "the right side of history" on similar issues in the past.