Downing backs transgender bill

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The Pittsfield Democrat is the lead sponsor of a bill to classify offenses against transgender citizens as hate crimes and prevent transgender discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, including restrooms. The majority of his colleagues have already signed on as co-sponsors.

"The transgender community has long suffered very pervasive discrimination," said Arlin Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "And much of it is founded in misunderstanding."

Fellow lead sponsors, Reps. Byron Rushing, D-Boston, and Carl Sciortino, D-Medford, said the transgender community has historically been the target of violence and discrimination.

"(Being transgender) upsets a lot of people on the fringe of our society," Rushing said. "When there is violence perpetrated against (transgender people), it gets very extreme It escalates and can get very brutal."

Although 13 other states have passed similar laws over the past 15 years, Massachusetts would be the first state to both protect its transgender residents and offer gay marriage. Boston, Cambridge and Northampton have already passed city ordinances protecting transgender citizens.

The lead opponent of the bill, the Massachusetts Family Institute, maintains the transgender community is "confused."

"(The bill) fosters the illusion that their situation is normal and forces that view on the public," said Evelyn Reilly, public policy director for the Institute. Reilly was specifically worried about opening up public restrooms to transgender people.

"Men and women bathrooms have been separated for ages for a reason," she said. "Women need to feel private and safe when they're using those facilities."

She presented the scenario of a sexual predator using "the guise of gender confusion" to enter restrooms.

Sciortino called her example a "red herring."

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"This bill does not condone or permit illegal activity," he said. "Illegal activity remains illegal."

Reilly pointed out the bill removes discrimination protection for veterans, married individuals and children, among others, in the state's existing laws.

Sciortino spokesman Daniel Glasser said the omission was the result of a "cut and paste drafting error."

"The intent of the bill is only to expand rights to the transgender community, not remove them from anyone," he said.

Sponsors may be able to fix the error before it is officially filed because bills have yet to be numbered and assigned to committees. If not, "there will be plenty of opportunities to work it out," Glasser said.

Sciortino filed an identical bill last session, garnering the support of Gov. Deval L. Patrick, Attorney General Martha Coakley, and 23 other lawmakers, but it died in the Judiciary Committee by year end.

This session, 104 legislators — 83 representatives and 21 senators — co-sponsored the bill. House Speaker Robert DeLeo pledged his support at a gay-rights "Gayla" at a Boston nightclub on Valentine's Day.

New committee assignments may also help the bill. The appointment of Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem atop the Judiciary Committee, the bill's first stop, greatly increases its chances for survival, Isaacson said.

"Now we have a real ally at the Senate chair level," she said.

Rushing is also hopeful.

"There is a surprising amount of support for this bill and it seems to go all the way up through leadership," he said. "If those people maintain their support, then we will have this bill passed in this session."


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