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Legislature to reconsider bill protecting transgender access to public accommodations

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  July 8, 2013 04:21 PM

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Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/File 2012
State Representative Carl M. Sciortino Jr. of Medford.

When a homeless teen who was born male but now lives as a woman sought refuge last year at a North Shore shelter, she was turned away from a women’s dormitory and told to sleep on a mat in a storage room, according to Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.

“She’s told that she’s not allowed to stay in common spaces, and the message is that she’s not worthy of the same dignity and respect that other residents are entitled to,” said Jennifer Levi, director of the Transgender Rights Project at GLAD, who spoke on behalf of the young woman to protect her privacy.

GLAD, an organization that works to protect and expand legal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, has since filed a complaint against the shelter with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Levi said access to housing is often an issue for transgender people, and finding a safe place to stay is especially important because LGBT young people are disproportionately likely to become homeless.

That’s one reason Levi and other transgender advocates hope this will be the year the state Legislature will pass a bill that would protect the access of transgender people to public accommodations, including “hospitals, public transportation, nursing homes, supermarkets, retail establishments, and all other places open to the public.”

Opponents of the bill say it would improperly give men access to women’s private spaces.

“We believe in the safety, the privacy, and the modesty of all citizens, and we believe this legislation would violate that,” said Kris Mineau, president of the Woburn-based Massachusetts Family Institute.

Legislators will hear testimony on the bill Tuesday afternoon at a hearing before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

In an e-mail, Levi said the experience was humiliating for the young woman, then 19.

“I felt very disrespected,” the young woman said, according to Levi. “It made me feel bad because it was mad dusty in there. They just made it seem like, ‘Oh, we’re in charge. You have no say here.’“

The Massachusetts Transgender Equal Rights Act became law in July 2012, adding gender identity to the Commonwealth’s hate crimes law and forbidding discrimination against transgender people in employment, housing, and credit. But that bill did not offer protections in public accommodations.

Opponents had labeled a bill that included access to public accommodations as the “bathroom bill,” and claimed it would allow biological men to demand access to women’s restrooms and locker rooms.

Lead sponsors of the current bill before the state House and Senate are Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat; Representative Byron Rushing, a Democrat from the South End; and Carl M. Sciortino Jr., a Medford Democrat.

Rushing said asking a transgender person to leave a restaurant because someone else might be uncomfortable “is as outrageous as asking someone to leave a restaurant because of their race.”

He said proponents of these protections had sacrificed the public accommodations issue two years ago to ensure that a bill with many other protections would succeed, but that there was “significant support” for this final piece of the puzzle in this session.

Rushing said not only will transgender people testify Tuesday about their own experiences, but there will also be owners of restaurants and other public facilities who will tell legislators that it would make their jobs easier to have a law guiding them and their staffs.

“Everyone in Massachusetts is better off if we don’t have to worry about people being in any way discriminated for aspects of their humanity and who they are,” he said. “The state is always is better off when we’re sure that everyone’s civil rights are protected.”

Sciortino, who is campaigning to replace Ed Markey in the US House of Representatives, said discrimination against transgender citizens of the Commonwealth “happens all too frequently.”

He said opponents of this bill who claim transgender people would victimize others in private areas, such as bathrooms, have the issue backward.

“The reality is that transgender people face violence and discrimination in bathrooms — they are often the victims of violence — but they also face discrimination in the whole range of public accommodations that are covered by this law,” Sciortino said.

Sciortino said he could not predict whether the bill would be voted favorably out of the committee and passed on for consideration by the full House and Senate.

“This is not an easy issue for a lot of people,” he said. “Many [legislators] I know are not familiar with transgender people in their districts. It is a community that has been hidden or has not fully found its voice over the years.”

In a letter to the chairs of the Judiciary Committee, Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he signed a similar ordinance guaranteeing access within the City of Boston in 2002 and asking them to support the current bill.

“Massachusetts has long been a leader nationally in its protection of the rights of individuals, and this bill is a natural extension to include the rights of transgender individuals,” Menino said in the letter. “Discrimination against transgender people should not be tolerated across the state, no matter whether it occurs in a private or public setting.”

Legislators will also hear Tuesday from opponents, including the Massachusetts Family Institute, a conservative public-policy organization that has opposed same-sex marriage and the expansion of legal protections for LGBT people.

Mineau, president of the institute, said Monday its top concern is protecting women in areas that should be private, and that the bill is “bad public policy.”

“I have yet to meet a woman or a young girl that is comfortable with a man in a bathroom or a locker room with them,” he said. “When a woman sees a man in a women’s bathroom, how do they know who they are?”

Mineau said he and others at the institute believe certain traits connected to gender are inherent and are not altered by surgery or other medical interventions. He said access to private spaces such as restrooms and locker rooms should be determined by a person’s physical gender at birth.

“I keep it very simple. I believe that men are men and that women are women,” he said. “I’m from the old school.”

The public may testify on the bill before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary during a hearing scheduled for 1 p.m. on Tuesday, July 9, in State House room 209A.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Beacon Hill on Twitter: @YourBeaconHill.

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