In wake of Senate vote, Berkshire schools receive guidance on ensuring transgender rights


It's been a big week in the commonwealth and the country in the continuing push for civil rights and equity for transgender people.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice and state of North Carolina filed dueling lawsuits over the state's so-called "bathroom bill" which essentially prevents people from using public bathrooms that do not correspond with their biological sex.

On Thursday, the Massachusetts Senate voted 33-4 to advance a bill that would offer transgender people the right to use public restrooms corresponding with the gender they identify with. On Friday, the civil rights divisions of the federal Justice and Education departments delivered a directive for the nation's public schools to guarantee this right to transgender students in compliance with Title IX regulations.

While there seems to be a nationwide divide on these matters, Berkshire County school and legislative officials say the moves of the state Senate and President Barack Obama's administration are aligned with Massachusetts' progressive track to end discrimination and promote inclusive municipalities and public accommodations.

Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon, who also heads the Berkshire County Superintendents Roundtable organization for school leadership, said that his district did receive Friday's eight-page document of "significant guidance" on how schools must serve transgender students. The "dear colleague" letter reminds public districts that they're obligated to enforce nondiscriminatory practices that protect sex and gender identity under Title IX regulations.

"To my knowledge all Berkshire districts are meeting the needs of diverse learners," said Dillon in an email to The Eagle. "In the BHRSD schools, we've always celebrated diversity and worked to create a supportive environment where we can learn from each other."

Local legislative delegates, all Democrats, all agreed that the recently passed Senate bill (S.735) and proposed House bill (H.1577) are being considered through a civil rights lens.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli said he "applauds the Senate for coming forth" with a decision. He also lauded the president's administration for taking a more authoritative stance on transgender rights.

"We should all be coming forth more when it comes to human rights, civil rights," Pignatelli said.

As Massachusetts did with its stance on marriage equality, he said he hopes the commonwealth will get ahead of the federal government on this issue. "Last time, we took it upon ourselves and got it done, and I hope we have a chance to be leaders on this again," he said.

"It's a pretty simple issue: it's about everyone being welcomed in Massachusetts, and that no one should face for fear or discrimination for being who they are," said Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, a longtime proponent of transgender rights who helped pass the Senate bill on Thursday.

He said he hopes his counterparts in the House act "as quickly as possible" on its bill.

Both he and state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, were among the sponsors for transgender rights bills that led to Gov. Deval Patrick signing into law in November 2011, "An Act Relative to Gender Identity."

As of July 1, 2012, it has been providing legal protections from discrimination to transgender and gender non-conforming people in the areas of credit, housing, employment and public education. However, the legislation currently excludes protections in public accommodations, or spaces open to the public, such as restrooms, locker rooms, public transit, etc.

Prior to the issuance of Friday's federal guidelines, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued its own guiding document on "creating a safe and supportive school environment" relative to the gender identity bill. These rights and guidelines range from exercising the "proper use of names and pronouns for transgender students" to "appropriate access to restrooms and locker rooms."

On the currently proposed House bill, Cariddi said she's received many emails from constituents expressing support for the legislations versus "one or two emails from people who have concerns."

"I think, perhaps, with some openness and some reasonable thought to the issue that people can support this. People really should be able to use the restrooms where they feel comfortable going," Cariddi said.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said she and her fellow House members have been "very purposeful" in gathering education and support on the matter and are taking it "step by step.

"It's an issue that's new for many, many people," she said.

She noted that while Western Massachusetts seems to be supportive of the proposed Senate and House bills, there have been groups like the Massachusetts Family Institute present at the Statehouse to protest the proposed bills.

Farley-Bouvier said the new legislation can close the loophole for public accommodations left out of the 2011 bill, which extends beyond bathrooms. Both she and Sen. Downing, in phone interviews with The Eagle on Friday, drew parallels between the lack of access to public accommodations for transgender people to the lack of access people of color had to public restrooms, lunch counters and buses prior to the civil rights movement.

Anecdotally, Farley-Bouvier described visiting a local senior center earlier this year and explaining and asking for their opinions about the issue.

She said, "There was a few moments of silence and then someone spoke up and said, "Then why don't you just get on with it?" They basically said, let's get past this and get on with the rest of the work that we need to do in the Legislature."

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.


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