BOSTON — In a major victory for equal rights activists, legislation aimed at preventing discrimination against transgender individuals in all public places, including bathrooms, passed the House on Wednesday, clearing one of the last remaining hurdles for the decade-old policy proposal.
The House voted 116-36 in favor of the bill (H 4343) that would bar discrimination against transgender individuals in public accommodations and allow people to use public facilities that match their gender identity rather than their biological sex. Twelve Democrats voted against the bill, while eight Republicans supported it giving House leadership the veto-proof majority it wasn't sure it had leading into the debate.
The Senate has already passed a similar bill, and Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, shed his neutrality Tuesday on the eve of the House debate by coming out in favor of the House's version, indicating he would sign that bill after "hearing from all sides."
The vote capped a long journey for proponents of the bill who were unsuccessful in advancing the legislation over an eight-year period when the State House was entirely controlled by Democrats.
Rep. John Fernandes, the House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, kicked off the emotional day of debate at the State House by calling public accommodations the "bedrock" of anti-discrimination and a natural extension of the 2011 law that protected transgender individuals from discrimination in the workplace and housing.
"You can't tell people it's OK to work at the diner, but it's not to sit at the lunch counter. We learned that a long time ago," Fernandes said.
With proponents and opponents of the bill crowding two floors of the State House outside the House chamber, lawmakers engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth over the controversial measure. In the hallways, opponents brought by the Massachusetts Family Institute chanted, "No," while supporters in the House gallery applauded each opening speech in support of the bill. The debate drew more people to the State House that any other issue this session as many watched on television screens set up outside the chamber as overflow viewing areas.
Critics of the bill, pushing a slate of amendments, argued it intrudes on privacy rights of more than 99 percent of population by allowing individuals to use bathrooms they associate with their gender identity, and opens the door for abuses by those who would prey on women and children.
Many of the amendments were geared toward legislating access to bathrooms and locker rooms.
Rep. James Lyons, R-Andover, who helped lead the charge against the bill, said protecting transgender individuals does not require impinging on the privacy rights of others.
"The bill allows people on a routine basis to decide if they are male or female. Your anatomy is no longer relevant," Lyons said. "This has absolutely nothing to do with discrimination, it has everything to do with changing our society and social engineering by those on the left. I'm not interested in changing society."
Rep. Sheila Harrington, R-Groton, said claims by the bill's opponents are rooted in "what could happen, not what has happened."
Fernandes, D-Milford, also said the experience of 17 states and the District of Columbia proves that there is no threat involved with allowing transgender individuals to use the restroom, locker room or other public accommodation that applies to their gender identity.
In a reflective speech that held the attention of the sometimes restless House, Harrington explained that she went into the issue in 2011 with her mind made up to oppose the bill and "wasn't listening with an open mind or open heart."
"I'm here today to say that I know now that when I spoke five years ago I was wrong, wrong on a number of levels," she said. "Because I opposed this bill as I said, I am well aware of the arguments made against it because I made them, I made them myself. But I also now know why these arguments are wrong."
Harrington refuted the assertion from the bill's opponents that certain religious beliefs prevent them from supporting the legislation, citing her own Roman Catholic faith and her 16 years at Catholic school. "I support this bill fully because of my faith, not in spite of it," she said.
At one point as the debate was in full swing, Massachusetts Family Institute Executive Director Andrew Beckwith led a group of several dozen protesters into the lobby of the governor's office to make their concerns known. Though Baker was not in the State House at the time, a senior aide came out to listen. "Our children are the victims of what's going on right now in the State House," one protester exclaimed.
Baker during his first run for governor in 2010 opposed a similar transgender public accommodations bill, and faced questions and criticism after he distributed fliers at the Republican Party convention that year deriding the bill as the "bathroom bill," despite the fact that his running mate, for Senate Minority Richard Tisei, was a sponsor.
Beckwith said his hope is that Baker "will have better ears than the House," despite the governor's newly declared support.
"These same concerns about privacy and safety for women and children were expressed very well by some on the House floor, but the amendments that were an attempt to provide some means of privacy and safety were summarily voted down, so if this bill comes to the governor's office we want to make sure he knows that these people came to the State House today to express those concerns," Beckwith said.
The House rejected amendments to exempt legally sex segregated facilities, bathrooms and locker rooms used primarily by minors, and multi-capacity showers and locker rooms. Amendments proposing to require proof of medical transition and to bar registered Level II and Level III sex offenders from using any facility that doesn't match their biological sex also failed.
House leaders were careful not to accept any amendments to the bill after Baker on Tuesday said he would sign the House version of the bill "in its current form" should it reach his desk.
The House bill would require Attorney General Maura Healey's office to "issue guidance or regulations for referring to the appropriate law enforcement agency or other authority for legal action any person who asserts gender identity for an improper purpose."
The Senate did not include that language in its bill, with key senators viewing it as unnecessary, but not objectionable and supporters favoring the language as a potential safeguard against predators who might take advantage of the bill's bathroom and locker room access provisions that are tied to gender identity.
The Senate, which passed its version earlier this month on a 33-4 vote, has also called for the law change to take effect immediately, while the House bill would delay implementation until Jan. 1, 2017.
The bill's final details may be worked out by a conference committee, unless legislative leaders can address differences informally.
"Today's passage of the Public Accommodations bill by the House puts Massachusetts one step closer to bringing equal protection under the law for transgender individuals and preventing discrimination based on gender identity for our residents. The Senate look forward to working with the House to send a bill to the Governor's desk," Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said in a statement.