By Audrey Cooney, news staff

A bill under review by the state legislature would expand legal protection against discrimination in public accommodations for transgender individuals. Supporters are calling the potential law a pivotal step toward extending equal protection under the law for all Massachusetts citizens.

“A transgender person can be turned away from a hotel or denied service, at a restaurant for example, just because of who they are,” Carisa Cunningham, a spokeswoman for Boston-based advocacy group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), said. “That’s clearly not right, and we’ve got to fix it.”

Current Massachusetts laws ban discrimination in public accommodations based on “age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, sex, religion and marital status.” The new bill would add gender identity to this list of personal characteristics, expanding protection to both transgender individuals and people who do not identify with a specific gender.

A 2011 bill banned discrimination against transgender individuals in housing, employment, lending and public education, making Massachusetts one of 18 states to have legal protections of the sort. It also added gender identity to the list of possible motivations for a hate crime.

“That [2011 legislation] was an important step, and protecting transgender people in public spaces – also known as public accommodations – will finish the job,” Cunningham said.

Earlier this month, several state leaders put their support behind the bill, including Attorney General Maura Healey and Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg. US Representatives Joseph P. Kennedy III, Seth Moulton and Katherine Clark recently added their support of the legislation.

So far, only Democratic officials have declared their support for the bill. Governor Charles Baker, a Republican, has expressed hesitancy to sign the law, which would need bipartisan support in order to override a governor’s veto. Baker has said he supports the 2011 bill and doesn’t believe additional legislation is required.

The bill has also found support on Northeastern University’s campus, with some students maintaining that transgender rights coincide with human rights in general.

“Everyone should have the same rights,” Caleb Tenenbaum, a third-year business major, said. “There shouldn’t be any discrimination.”

Those who oppose the bill say allowing transgender people to use the restrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their gender identity will pose a privacy threat to others.

Gender identity is currently determined by a too “loosely defined standard” to protect the safety and privacy of non-transgender people, according to Jonathan Alexandre, legal counsel at the Massachusetts Family Institute.

“One only needs to show evidence that they sincerely believe that they are one gender or another,” Alexandre said. “There’s no medical procedures necessary… and that has potential for a lot of abuse. There’s no way to police what’s going on in someone’s mind.”

However, studies have shown that allowing transgender individuals to use public spaces that properly align with their gender identity is crucial to maintaining their physical and mental health.

In 2013, Fenway Health conducted a survey within the Massachusetts transgender community to assess how much harassment and discrimination transgender people faced after the passing of the 2011 bill. Out of 452 people surveyed, 65 percent reported experiencing some sort of discrimination pertaining to public accommodations within the previous year.

“Non-discrimination protections are key to transgender people being able to live full and productive lives as themselves,” Cunningham said. “So is access to healthcare, access to accurate identity documents and freedom from violence.”

Alex Ahmed, a Northeastern graduate student and transgender woman, said there is no reason for the bill not to pass.

“I don’t think it should even be a debate,” Ahmed said. “I honestly don’t even understand the arguments against it. Forcing us out of bathrooms or other gendered spaces is a great way to deny a trans person their right to exist.”

Referring to the legislation as a “bathroom bill” – a term largely frowned upon within the transgender community – Alexandre said the language of the bill reveals its “true intentions.” He said its main objective is to allow transgender individuals to use restrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their gender identity.

“If this bill was not specifically targeting bathrooms, then the 2011 bill would be sufficient,” Alexandre said.

The bill, however, covers a wide variety of public places. Focusing solely on bathrooms misses the point of the legislation, according to Mason J. Dunn, president of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition.

“We’re talking about a very large category of spaces that don’t have any protections against discrimination,” Dunn said. “Obviously there are bathrooms in public accommodations, but that is not public accommodations alone.”

To illustrate the bill’s necessity, Dunn told the story of a transgender man who stopped riding the T due to the level of aggression he received from other riders.

Dunn’s story speaks to a larger issue – the prejudice and animosity those in the transgender community regularly face. The public accommodations bill would relieve some of those issues, but would do little to change the views of those who discriminate against transgender people, according to Cunningham.

“Changing laws is certainly part of changing the way society looks at groups of people, but that is only part of the work,” said Cunningham.

Ahmed cautioned that the bill would not solve all the problems facing the transgender community.

“It’s good that a trans person theoretically has some recourse if they encounter transphobia in a public space,” Ahmed said. “But it does not address transphobia itself, obviously, just like no law can address sexism, racism or homophobia.”

Others said the law seems too vague to be truly effective, worrying that discrimination is often too vague to quantify.

“The only hesitation I have with laws against discrimination is how they’re going to be enforced,” Daniella Emami, third-year International Affairs and Human Services major, said.

Ultimately, no law has the ability to alter society’s perception of the transgender community, said Ahmed. According to The Advocate, a publication focused on LGBT rights, at least 22 transgender women have been murdered in the US this year.

“Laws won’t stop people from treating us terribly in bathrooms or other public spaces,” Ahmed said. “Laws aren’t stopping people from killing us.”

Photo courtesy Tim Pierce, Creative Commons