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Mass. House approves transgender rights bill

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press / November 15, 2011

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BOSTON—The state House of Representatives has approved a bill designed to protect transgender people against discrimination in the workplace.

The House voted 95-58 on Tuesday in favor of the measure, which now heads to the Senate.

The vote followed an hour-long debate. Lawmakers had earlier agreed to cut off the debate at 8:50 p.m., meaning many proposed amendments could not be considered.

The bill was criticized by House Republicans as unnecessary and anti-business but was defended by supporters as an important addition to the state's civil rights laws.

The vote came two days after supporters agreed to drop a public accommodations section of the bill that critics said would lead to a breakdown in privacy in rest rooms, locker rooms and other single-gender facilities.

Critics of the bill claimed a partial win.

"It's a victory for the safety, privacy and modesty of women and children who expect to be safe and secure in public bathrooms in the commonwealth," said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.

Even with that change, however, House Republicans said the bill could potentially hurt small businesses and lead to a flurry of lawsuits.

"It opens the door for social change that would take away the rights of hardworking men and women and parents," said Rep. Marc Lombardo, a freshmen legislator from Billerica.

During a news conference with other GOP lawmakers outside the House chamber, Lombardo presented several hypothetical scenarios in which he said a small business would be damaged if the bill were passed.

Under one scenario, a day care employee who suddenly began identifying as a member of the opposite sex might make parents uncomfortable, prompting them to remove their children from the center, Lombardi said. Another scenario suggested customers might flee a small neighborhood grocery store after a male employee began wearing female clothing.

In such cases, employers would have no recourse if the bill were passed, critics said.

"You lose your customers, and you close up shop," Lombardo said.

Transgender advocates pushed back, saying the bill honors Massachusetts' long tradition of protecting civil rights by adding "gender identity or expression" to the state's nondiscrimination laws. They said 15 other states have such protections.

"Right now it's legal for a business to fire a transgender person for no other reason than their gender identity," said Rep. Carl Sciortino, a Democrat from Medford who backs the bill. "A fully functioning, hardworking individual can be told, `no, you're not welcome to work here, you're not welcome to live here,' for no other reason than gender identity.'"

Kenneth and Marcia Garber, of Quincy, said their 20-year-old transgender son died of a drug overdose two years ago after experiencing harassment and discrimination.

"He was bullied in school, he was discriminated against looking for jobs and he turned to drugs," Kenneth Garber said.

The couple went to the Statehouse on Tuesday to show their support for the bill.

"People are talking about transgender people who have never met a transgender person before," Garber said.

Republicans said the bill was a distraction from more critical issues that the Legislature should be acting on in the final days of the 2011 session. Lawmakers are scheduled to recess after Wednesday and are not due to resume formal sessions until after Jan. 1.

Rep. Shaunna O'Connell, a Republican from Taunton, said the bill was unnecessary because of laws that already protect people against discrimination in such things as housing and obtaining credit.

"No one here in this Legislature tolerates violence against any person at all, and we here in Massachusetts already have very stringent laws to protect people against discrimination," O'Connell said.

Sciortino said the bill does "nothing more and nothing less than adding gender identify to our existing civil rights laws."

"If the opponents are concerned that we are doing something redundant," Sciortino said, "then they shouldn't be afraid of what we are doing."

Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, said Tuesday he would sign the bill if it reached his desk and rejected opponents' claims that it might hurt small businesses.

"I don't think fairness is bad for anyone," Patrick said.

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Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.