By Audrey Cooney, news staff

Transgender individuals are legally guaranteed equal access to all public spaces and facilities after Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a law banning discrimination against transgender people on Friday, July 8. The signing came after months of political wrangling in the State House and more than a decade of advocacy and debate over transgender rights in the state.

“The new law will enable transgender people to participate fully in civic life without fear of discrimination,” said Carisa Cunningham, Director of Public Affairs and Education for GLAD, a legal advocacy group for the LGBT community. “We’re extremely happy with the law. Its nondiscrimination sections are clear and unambiguous.”

By criminalizing discrimination based on gender identity, the new law gives transgender people who experience discrimination a course of legal action.

“Now, they can do a number of things; they can contact an attorney, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination or the attorney general,” said Mason Dunn, president of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) is the state’s antidiscrimination agency enforcing laws in employment, housing, credit, public accommodation and access to education.

Dunn was the co-chair of the Freedom Massachusetts campaign, which was instrumental in getting the bill passed. Dunn said the campaign involved community outreach, phone banking, lobbying in the statehouse and working with the legislature on the bill’s wording.

Baker opposed the law during his failed 2010 gubernatorial bid, but told reporters on Friday that his change of opinion stemmed from discussions with people on both sides of the argument.

He had previously come under fire from advocates for LGBTQA+ rights for his reluctance to sign the bill. In April, the governor was booed off the stage at an LGBTQA+ event, as protesters demanded he take a stand for transgender rights by supporting the legislation.

The new law comes after a North Carolina law forcing transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender they were assigned at birth drew opposition throughout the country.

Not everyone is pleased with the bill, however. Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said the new legislation places the public, specifically women and children, at risk.

“What this bill does, among other things, is sacrifice the privacy and safety of people in public facilities like locker rooms, showers, changing facilities, things like that,” he said.

The Massachusetts Family Institute, which Beckwith describes as an organization that focuses on “family values issues, specifically vice, sexuality and marriage, and religious liberty,” has been among the most outspoken opponents of the bill.

The bill signed into law by Baker has been hailed as a compromise bill by many with provisions meant to allay reservations from conservative lawmakers. As part of the compromise, the MCAD will develop policies and recommendations on when and how a business owner can establish what gender a customer identifies as.

The state attorney general, Maura Healey, has also been tasked with creating regulations for prosecuting individuals who “assert gender identity for an improper purpose.” These elements were included in the House’s version of the bill but not the Senate’s.

Emily Michalakes, political manager at LGBTQA+ grassroots advocacy organization MassEquality and a Northeastern graduate student in urban and regional policy program, explained that while most of the bill’s protections are effective immediately, Healey has until Sept.1 to give these recommendations, which will go into effect Oct. 1.

The modifications did not appease Beckwith. Healey’s support for the transgender community makes her an unreliable ally for those who oppose the bill, he said.

“This is the same attorney general who said a couple months ago that she was very disturbed over people who have concerns over this bill, and that if someone is not comfortable using the bathroom with a transgender person, which means someone of the opposite anatomical sex, that they should just hold it,” he said. “So if that’s the person who’s supposed to protect my interests and the interests of my family, then that’s not much of a compromise.”

But as Michalakes explains, the law extends to many more places than bathrooms and locker rooms.

“Everyone talks about bathrooms and locker rooms, but really what it is, is where we are when we’re not at home, work or school,” she said. “So just thinking about everything that’s a public space, this law is going to have a huge impact because it allows the transgender community to feel safe and equal in a public space.”

While the bill is a big step forward, activists say that plenty still needs to be done to achieve full equality for the transgender community. Dunn said that achieving health care equity for transgender individuals will be one of the next big barriers to overcome, while Michalakes said the fact that conversion therapy is still legal in Massachusetts is one of the most glaring problems. She also mentioned pay equality and changing the gender marker on drivers licenses and IDs. The new legislation is simply a “a piece of the puzzle,” she said.
“The fight isn’t over because of this bill,” Michalakes said.  

Photo courtesy Rappaport Center, Creative Commons