Transgender-Rights Bill Advances

As the Legislature’s formal session heads toward a July 31 close, we’ll be keeping an eye on a number of bills that have the support of the BBA.  Among those, the one that has received the most attention of late has to do with transgender rights.

Last Wednesday, all eyes were on the House, as it voted 116-36 to enact legislation to include transgender people among those protected from discrimination in public accommodations in Massachusetts.  The bill states in part, “Any public accommodation … that lawfully segregates or separates access to such public accommodation … based on a person’s sex shall grant all persons admission to and the full enjoyment of such public accommodation … consistent with the person’s gender identity.”


“A transgender individual is your son, or daughter, or classmate, or friend or friend’s child.  A transgender individual is your constituent, and someone who ought to have the freedom to live his or her life without fear of having to face discrimination simply because of who they are.” — Rep. Michael Day


The legislation faced some opposition centered on the use of bathrooms, and when the Legislature enacted a broad transgender-rights law in 2011, the public-accommodations language was removed before its passage.  The current House version of the measure, as adopted last week, includes language requiring the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination [MCAD] to clarify “when and how gender identity … may be evidenced” and requiring the Attorney General to offer guidance on “legal action [against] any person who asserts gender identity for an improper purpose.”

The debate in the House—kicked off by a speech in support from Rep. John Fernandes, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, which reported the bill favorably—was spirited and emotional, as it had been in the Senate when that body previously took up the bill.  Several recently-elected Representatives used the occasion to make their maiden speeches before the chamber—among them Rep. Michael Day (Stoneham), former co-chair of the BBA’s Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Section, who expressed his support for the legislation, telling his colleagues, “A transgender individual is your son, or daughter, or classmate, or friend or friend’s child.  A transgender individual is your constituent, and someone who ought to have the freedom to live his or her life without fear of having to face discrimination simply because of who they are.”

The Senate, by a vote of 33-4 in May, had already passed a corresponding bill, which leaves out the aforementioned language addressing MCAD and the Attorney General.  It would also take effect immediately upon the Governor’s signature, whereas the House bill would take effect on January 1, 2017.

Governor Charlie Baker pledged, shortly before the House debate, that he would sign that version of the bill should it reach his desk.  It remains to be seen whether the Senate will accede to the House on the differences in language and allow that bill to advance to the Governor’s desk, or insist on a conference committee to hash out differences.  Senate President Stanley Rosenberg has said that the House provision regarding the AG and MCAD is unnecessary but nevertheless not objectionable.  The sticking point may be over the effective date, with Senate backers preferring not to delay implementation another several months.

The BBA is proud to have been a long-time supporter of transgender rights, dating back to before passage of the 2011 law.  In our testimony at that time, we recognized the importance and value of diversity in the legal profession, just as in society at large, and that “no one should face discrimination or violence because of gender identity or expression.”  Many law firms have been out in front of the law on this issue, adopting policies to support transgender employees, and the American Bar Association took a position in 2006 supporting anti-discrimination legislation.

The bill was originally sponsored by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (Boston), Rep. Byron Rushing (Boston), and Rep. Denise Provost (Somerville).  We look forward to this important bill becoming law in the near future, and as the legislative session winds down, we will continue to monitor and advocate for other bills supported by the BBA.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association