Story behind Massachusetts civil rights legislationTrans Progressive Thursday, December 8th, 2011
Commentary: Trans Progressive
Recently, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed H.3810, “An Act Relative To Gender Identity” which added gender identity to the commonwealth’s protected classes. To quote from the governor’s official Web site, the bill is:
“Historic legislation to legally protect transgender individuals from discrimination in housing, education, employment and credit. The new law, signed at the State House [Nov. 23, 2011], also provides additional civil rights and protections from hate crimes.
“The transgender equal rights law will make Massachusetts the 16th state to treat transgender citizens as a protected class. The law modifies language in Massachusetts statutes to protect all individuals from discrimination, regardless of gender identities. This change will create equal protections for transgender individuals seeking employment, housing, credit and education. There are approximately 33,000 transgender residents living in Massachusetts.”
What the law doesn’t provide is antidiscrimination protections for public accommodations based on gender identity, and there are a number of transgender community activists that have decried the civil rights bill because they consider it not comprehensive enough. Some suggested that since the bill provided what they consider inadequate protection for transgender people it was a failure that shouldn’t have passed into law.
So, the questions regarding passage of this bill into law are about the strategy and tactics employed to pass the bill into law, as well as why public accommodations protections were removed from the comprehensive bill prior to its passage.
I spoke to a number of past and current leaders of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), and heard the story behind the bill that passed into law.
The MTPC was formed in 2001 because the then lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) civil rights organizations weren’t focusing on transgender civil rights issues. Through 2008, the organization was a completely volunteer nonprofit.
They realized early on that it’s extremely rare that state level legislation occurs in Massachusetts over just one session – in that commonwealth, the average is seven years to pass noncontroversial legislation. So knowing that transgender civil rights legislation was controversial, the organization’s leadership took a long view toward full transgender civil rights protection.
The MTPC also knew that the commonwealth had what they considered archaic language defining sex segregated spaces; they knew that the commonwealth has a history of there being more moderate Democrats than progressive Democrats, and that most Republicans wouldn’t vote for transgender civil rights protections.
The MTPC first worked on passing comprehensive ordinances in local municipalities – which they accomplished – to build momentum for comprehensive statewide legislation. This was during a time when there were a succession of Republican governors that would be unlikely to pass a comprehensive transgender civil rights bill into law.
In the previous two sessions of the Massachusetts House, the comprehensive transgender civil rights bill was sent back by the Judiciary Committee for “further study,” which is the Massachusetts legislative equivalent of “purgatory” for bills.
In the current session, the MTPC leadership was told by sponsors of the bill (which included Reps. Sciortino and Byron Rushing and Sens. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Benjamin Downing) that the Judiciary Committee would report the bill out of committee, but only if the public accommodations language was stripped from the comprehensive bill. The MTPC leadership was told that the bill with public accommodations language didn’t have the votes either in the committee or in the full House.
The MTPC leadership had discussed the possibility of public accommodations being stripped from the bill with the trans community in Massachusetts, and the consensus was that employment protections and access to education were the important elements. To fund civil rights efforts in the future, transgender community activism requires funding. A more educated and more fully employed community has more resources to devote to civil rights efforts than an unemployed community.
The trans community is becoming aware that public accommodations protections is the current heavy lift with regard to transgender civil rights due to the success of the religious right’s “bathroom bill” meme. Focus On The Family’s activism arm CitizenLink spent over $150,000 in tying potential bathroom predation of women and girls to transgender women using women’s restrooms.
The MTPC leadership was aware that the current governor would sign H.3810 into law, but that he’s not running for re-election. If the organization didn’t agree that the comprehensive bill minus public accommodations language should move forward, then it might be as long as 2017 before any transgender civil rights bill had a chance to pass into law.
The MTPC acquiesced to the House sponsors on public accommodations.
The process for ordinary equality is different in every state, and the political climate, as well as tactics and strategy, for passing statewide transgender civil rights legislation into law is different in every state. We can’t act as if the politics in one statehouse is the same as all others, and we need to adjust our tactics and strategies accordingly in each state.
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