Begun in 2008, the Tale of the Misnamed 'Bathroom Bill' Continues on Beacon Hill

Friday, July 22, 2011

Remember how, back in the spring of 2010, Republican candidate Charlie Baker ignited a controversy by saying he'd veto the "bathroom bill" if he were elected governor and the bill landed on his desk?

Advocates of the legislation, then formally titled An Act Relative to Gender Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes, pounced on Baker for describing it as the bathroom bill, a derogatory term that some in the opposition delighted in using.

Advocates also criticized Baker as being inconsistent and hypocritical because:

  • One, he had implemented a transgender employee rights policy when he was CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and

  • Two, he had chosen as his lieutenant governor running mate then Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, who happened to be one of the co-sponsors of An Act Relative to Gender Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes.

Throughout the media storm, Baker handled himself well. He stood his ground and explained his position clearly and forcefully, but with an absence of emotion and hyperbole quite befitting an executive.

And he rang up points by asking why, if the bill was so necessary and enjoyed such wide support, (it had 104 co-sponsors in both branches at the time), it had never made it out of the Joint Commitee on the Judiciary since being introduced in 2008?

If legislative leaders really wanted the bill to move, he said, it would have happened by now, effectively turning his tormenters in the direction of the Democratic Party, with its huge majorities in the House and Senate.

Baker, in this instance, was a paragon of both common sense and political skill.

The transgender rights bill died where it was resting at the end of the 2009-10 legislative session, in Judiciary, but was quickly revived when the new session convened in January. It has been retitled An Act Relative to Transgender Equal Right, but has not attracted nearly as many co-sponsors as before.

On June 8, the bill was among a large number of bills heard by the Judiciary committee during proceedings that stretched from mid-afternoon to past 9:00 P.M. in Gardner Auditorium, the largest meeting space in the Massachusetts State House.

Many transgendered men and women spoke eloquently on behalf of the bill. They told heartbreaking stories of how difficult their day-to-day lives were and of the fear, hatred and even violence they'd encountered.

Everyone knows it's hard to be the one who is different, but the testimony of June 8 made it possible for anyone hearing it to understand in a detailed and visceral way the pain, sorrow and deprivation of the transgendered in our society. One could not hear their stories and not be moved.

Of course, there were those who testified against the bill, with their objections centering on the implications for public accommodations, particularly bathrooms and locker rooms. The bill, you see, would extend protections and rights to persons regardless of their gender "identity or expression."

Gender expression is a problem for opponents who fear that someone merely acting on a feeling of being like the opposite gender will enter a bathroom, or a health club or school locker room, reserved for that opposite gender.

Locker rooms are actually a much bigger stumbling block for advocates of An Act Relative to Transgender Equal Rights than bathrooms, for we have had unisex bathrooms in this country for years and bathrooms have stalls, while locker rooms are places where people are naked in front of one another. The idea, say, of a male who is only feeling like a girl or woman one day showing up in a girls' or women's locker room causes most folks to be discomforted.

Advocates retort that three communities in Massachusetts, including Boston, and several other states, have laws on the books protecting persons regardless of their gender identity or gender expression, and that all hell hasn't broken loose in locker rooms there. Fair enough.

It's also fair to say that most transgendered people, whether they have undergone the full physical transformation to their opposite gender or are expressing that opposite gender in other ways, will never cause a problem in a locker room. People can be discrete in locker rooms.

But if you operate a business that has public accommodations, general statements and reassurances -- and even tranquil records in other locales -- will never quite dispel the fear of what one mischief maker, armed with a hungry, aggressive attorney, can do.

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