Massachusetts transgender activists make frustration clear to Baker
BOSTON >> Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday morning doubled down on his stance of taking no position on a transgender non-discrimination bill pending before a legislative committee after he was faced with a hostile crowd at a gay and transgender business event Wednesday night.
"I've made very clear that I don't believe we should discriminate against anybody in Massachusetts and I've also made very clear that we will take seriously whatever legislation comes before us on this issue," Baker said Thursday at a hastily-called press conference outside his office.
With the issue of transgender rights burning white hot in the wake of a controversial new law in North Carolina, Baker was the keynote speaker at Boston Spirit Magazine's LGBT Executive Networking Night on Wednesday. He was initially received warmly by the audience and spoke for about 20 minutes about the MBTA and the state's new opioid abuse prevention law, according to WBZ Radio.
A video of a portion of Baker's remarks posted to YouTube by an attendee shows a number of protesters standing directly in front of Baker at the Boston Marriott Copley Place holding signs that said, "public places = our spaces."
When Baker did not pledge to sign the bill that would establish public accommodation access rights for transgender people in Massachusetts, many in the crowd began to heckle the governor.
"You have my commitment tonight that if and when a bill gets to my desk, I'll make sure I talk to all parties involved before we make any decision," Baker said, leading the crowd to begin jeering him.
"That's not good enough," one person shouted. Another yelled, "give us some commitment." Soon much of the audience was chanting, "sign the bill."
Grace Stowell, executive director of the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth, said the audience at Wednesday's event was eager to hear what Baker had to say and received him warmly throughout much of his speech.
"We were hopeful that he would say something that was promising or would signal some kind of support for what we've been fighting for for so long," she said. "When at the end of his speech he brought it up and didn't and said pretty much what he had been saying before that's when a lot of folks were frustrated that he wasn't coming out in support or at least acknowledging the challenges that we're all facing."
After the initial interruption from the audience, Baker began to tell the crowd that he didn't run for office expecting to take on the opioid crisis but was compelled to act by the stories he heard from addicts and their families. He advised the protesters to continue to make their voices heard, which seemed to only stoke their anger.
"You won't even take a meeting," one person in attendance yelled at Baker before the rest of the audience joined in on the heckling. Baker's office said he has met with transgender individuals, but would not further describe those meetings.
Baker waved to the crowd and said, "hope you all have a great night," before walking off the stage and out a back exit of the ballroom as the audience rained boos down upon him.
Baker said Thursday his remarks on Wednesday night included a discussion of his being the only Republican governor in the nation to sign onto an amicus brief supporting marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court, his administration's inclusion of LGBT-owned businesses in the state's supplier diversity program, and his belief that advocates should continue to share their stories.
"Obviously, in the end, that wasn't quite what folks wanted to hear, and I respect that," Baker said Thursday. "I went to the event because I believe in and support many of the issues that community cares about, and I'm proud of my record on that."
While activists made their frustrations clear to Baker, the bill they want passed has languished for most of the 2015-16 legislative session before the Judiciary Committee.
"Trans people of all ages and backgrounds and experiences face significant challenges, discrimination and oppression, and this is a really important bill around public accommodations and our safety and wellbeing," Stowell said. "I'm concerned that some people are playing politics with our lives."
The legislation (H 1577/ S 735) would provide protections for transgender people using public accommodations, and would allow them to use public bathrooms and restrooms associated with their gender identity rather than their anatomical sex.
Supported by legislative leaders, the attorney general, a litany of major corporations and Boston's major sports teams, 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 bills.
Somerville Rep. Denise Provost, one of the bill's sponsors, said she has not yet heard what details of the bill Baker has specific questions or concerns about.
"The governor's reluctance to state an opinion seems to be very odd in light of his complete willingness to speak out on other bills," she said, citing the governor's comments on pending legislation on charter schools, opioid abuse and energy. "Now not only is he not weighing in but he's creating this guessing game as to what details he could possibly be talking about. You either have legal equality or you don't."
Provost also said that extending the bill's reporting deadline until May 2 — the day before candidates who want to run for a seat in the Legislature must file nomination papers — is "probably the kind of political accommodation that we might necessarily expect."
"If a vote on the bill is delayed until after such time as members know whether or not they have an opponent, for some members that might make life easier," she said.
Rep. John Fernandes, the House chairman of the Judiciary Committee that has custody of the bill, said he has not informally polled the members of the committee to see exactly where they stand, and could not "say for certain" whether the committee would seek another extension or make a decision in May.
"I support the ultimate idea that we should protect people in public accommodations. In terms of the legislation itself, my staff and I are still working with businesses and other government leaders about what troubles them and what they like and trying to see if there's anything we can do to the bill that's not offensive to the goals but will make it more acceptable," Fernandes said.
Though the bill remains in the committee, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said Wednesday the Senate plans to debate the issue "probably in May, at worst in early June." Rosenberg has said since late last year that the Senate is prepared to take the issue up.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who like Rosenberg supports the bill, has been surveying House members to discern whether a gubernatorial veto could be overridden before deciding whether to bring the bill to a vote.
Matt Murphy contributed to this report.
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