Mass. Lawmakers Debate Trans Equality Bill; Conn. Gov. Set to Sign Similar Measure

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday June 10, 2011

Lawmakers in two New England states are pondering bills that would help ensure equality for transgender people.

In Massachusetts, both chambers of the state government deliberated over a bill that would do away with discrimination against trans people in the areas of housing, public accommodations, and the workplace, among others.

Meantime, lawmakers in Connecticut have already approved a similar bill. Gov. Dan Malloy has promised to sign the bill into law.

In both states, opponents sought to reduce the complex issue into a single, highly charged point of contention, claiming that under the provisions of such a law sexual predators would infiltrate women's restrooms and locker rooms in order to spy upon, and possibly assault, women and girls.

But Conn. Gov. Malloy refused to be sidetracked by lurid rhetoric.

"This bill is another step forward in the fight for equal rights for all of Connecticut's citizens, and it's the right thing to do," a statement from the governor said, reported on June 7. "It's difficult enough for people who are grappling with the issue of their gender identity, and discrimination against them has no place in our society. Connecticut has lead the way in other civil rights issues and I'm proud to be able to support and sign this bill."

The Connecticut bill would bar discrimination based upon "a person's gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person's physiology or assigned sex at birth," the article reported, quoting from the text of the bill itself.

The bill does not give carte blanche to non-transgender individuals who might attempt to sneak into women's restrooms and then claim that they did so because they happened to "feel transgender" that day. Rather, the bill calls for trans individuals to be able to back up assertions of their gender identity through their medical history or through "consistent and uniform assertion," the justout article said.

Trans residents of Massachusetts found allies in a group of leaders from the faith community who renewed pressure on state lawmakers in April to pass a bill that would include trans people under anti-discrimination laws, the Boston Globe reported on April 5.

Among the faith leaders seeking comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation was state Episcopalian head Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, who told the newspaper that fully 25% of transgender Massachusetts residents had faced a loss of employment due to their gender identity. Almost all transgender citizens of the state had been harassed in some manner, he said.

"Supporting this legislation, and supporting transgender people in the life of the church and in secular society really has to do with the living out of my baptismal covenant," Shaw told the Globe.

The bill would cover transgender victims of bias crimes and ban discrimination based on gender identity in the areas of housing, education, and public accommodation, among others. The Globe noted that thirteen states have put similar laws on their books.

But it seemed for a time that Massachusetts might not join those states in the near future. State Rep. Carl Sciortino recollected how the bill had attracted strong legislative support from lawmakers in both the state house and the state senate -- but no action was taken to advance the bill after a candidate for the governor's office, Charles Baker, chose the bill as a means of making political hay.

Calling it the "bathroom bill," Baker played on fears that such a bill could give sex criminals the opportunity to infiltrate women's restrooms and prey on underage girls and adult women alike.

Other anti-gay individuals and organizations took up the theme, with the Massachusetts Family Institute organizing a lobby day on April 8, 2010, to protest the bill. The "biology-based bathrooms" argument was prevalent at the lobby day, reported Bay Windows in an April 25, 2010, article.

"[F]ormer Fall River school superintendent Joseph Martins addressed attendees and painted a nightmarish scenario in which school officials would be powerless to stop hordes of teenage boys from charging into the girls' locker rooms to get a peek at their female classmates," the Bay Windows article reported.

"It is difficult enough to control student behavior, prevent discrimination of all students, and ensure the safety of all students without having to distinguish between truth and a lie of some student claiming, at will, a gender-related identity, appearance, expression or behavior other than that assigned sex at birth, simply to gain access to the opposite-at-birth-sex locker-rooms, showers, or lavatory facilities," Martins declared.

"Nothing in House Bill 1728 protects students using their birth-sex locker-rooms, showers, and lavatory facilities that may be in various stages of undress from unwanted eyeing or so-called, on purpose 'unintended' body touching by students of the opposite sex," Martins went on to assert.

The Massachusetts Family Institute also issued warnings to state lawmakers that depicted the bill as practically being an invitation to sex criminals, Bay Windows reported.

"Due to this wording, any man can legally gain access to facilities reserved for women and girls simply by indicating, verbally or non-verbally, that he inwardly feels female at the moment," an MFI-written brief stated. "There is no way to distinguish between someone suffering from 'Gender Identity Disorder' and a sexual predator looking to exploit this law. This is the dangerous reality of this bill."

The Globe article noted that following the midterm elections, the bill lost 35 supporters who did not run for re-election, or who were defeated at the polls. However, the bill reportedly still enjoys a great deal of support among the state's legislators; moreover, the article said, 135 clerics support the measure.

The Trans Experience

Trans individuals describe their experience as a deep-seated knowledge that they are a member of the opposite sex. Often, the awareness that a trans person feels he or she is in the "wrong" body starts in early childhood, and persists throughout life until some form of transition. A trans person may choose to dress and live as a member of the opposite sex without resorting to hormone therapy and surgery; or, he or she may take hormones to enhance the secondary sex characteristics of the gender with which they identify.

The ultimate transition from one gender to the other is sexual reassignment surgery, in which a trans individual undergoes operations to reconfigure their bodies, especially their genitals, so that they more closely resemble the gender to which they feel they belong. Often, transitioning provides a sense of relief and correctness for trans individuals for the first time in their lives.

But because such alterations are far easier and more effective if done before adolescence, some advocates say that trans individuals should be allowed to transition while they are still children. In some cases, doctors might prescribe drugs to delay adolescence, and the physical changes it brings, in order to give young trans people additional time.

Many in the general population do not understand the nature of the trans experience, or confuse gender identity with sexual orientation.

Such a lack of understanding was evident from certain quarters as Massachusetts lawmakers once again addressed the issue, with lawmakers from both chambers presenting their arguments to a joint Judiciary Committee, a June 9 Boston Globe article indicated. Two lawmakers "characterized the proposal as an assault on the working class," the article said.

One, State Rep. Representative Marc Lombardo, a Republican, echoed the argument that sexual predators would exploit the provisions of the bill.

"I think that this bill would compromise the basic standards of safety and privacy that women and children deserve and expect in society," Lombardo said. "As a father, I do not want to see men in the ladies room with my daughter."

"Is there not some moment when we say to ourselves in the Legislature of the Commonwealth, what are we doing?" said State Rep. James Lyons, also a Republican. "Now, the working families of our Commonwealth must worry about the moral environment."

But the issue is much larger than which restrooms trans individuals may be allowed to use, and the moral dimension of the proposed law was clear to proponents.

"What we are asking here today is so very, very simple," State Sen. Susan Fargo, said. "It extends civil rights protection to a group that has been forgotten."

"We know that our Commonwealth is stronger when every person can live and work free of harassment and threats," said the state's attorney general, Martha Coakley. "The unfairness is clear, but the remedy has not been clear."

One individual who was able to address the issue from a first-person perspective was the head of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, Gunner Scott, who is a transman -- which means that Scott was born a woman in body, but mentally identified as male. Scott now lives as a man, the article said.

Scott addressed a fundamental problem for many transgender individuals: A general lack of understanding that leaves them in the cold, even as the social and political climate for gays and lesbians grows ever more accepting.

"Most of us work really hard to be invisible in society," Scott said. "Unfortunately, most of us have no choice but to come out of the closet."

When they do, trans people are still too often met with incomprehension, hostility, and discrimination. Trans individuals are also targeted for violence, both in the United States and abroad. A recent spate of anti-trans violence in Puerto Rico underscores the intense level of vitriol and rage that is too often directed at transgender people.

When a similar bill was proposed in Maryland, anti-trans activists there worked to scuttle the measure, and effectively won when the bill was sent into procedural oblivion. A Massachusetts anti-gay group took credit for the outcome.

"The homosexual lobby was hoping to get it passed by the Senate and signed by the Governor by April 11, when the Maryland legislative session ends," text at MassResistance read. "But it appears the Senate leadership has had enough!"

The site's text went on to say that the bill was sent to the Rules Committee of the Maryland State Senate, which is a repository for bills that lawmakers do not wish to have to address.

"When we are through with the budget we'll have time to deal with other issues that might have a chance of passage," said Mike Miller, the president of the state senate, according to local newspaper the Baltimore Sun. "At this point in time I'd say the chances of passage of that bill are next to none."

"Gave all the Republicans your pics to get them fired up against this bill," an opponent of the Maryland bill wrote to MassResistance, which regularly publicizes photos of gays and transgender people, including minors. "Once again, I really can't thank you enough for all your help and moral support," the Maryland correspondent wrote.

"We're glad we could be part of the fight," text at read. "MassResistance will continue to help around the country in any way we can."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.