Transgender activists rally in support of so-called ‘bathroom bill’

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BOSTON –Scores of transgender activists flooded the State House Thursday for a rally in support of pending legislation that promises to expand the state’s anti-discrimination law to add protections for transgender people in places of “public accommodation.”

Supporters of the measure, sponsored by Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston) and Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), say the bill (H 1577, S 735) will protect transgender people from discrimination in public places such as movie theaters and restaurants.

But those who oppose the bill say it goes too far by including bathrooms, locker rooms, and other places generally considered gender-specific and private.

Labeled the “bathroom bill” by opponents, the measure adds the term “gender-identity” to the list of categories protected by from discrimination in public accommodations under Massachusetts law.  But it also explicitly states that, “[a]ny public accommodation … that lawfully segregates or separates access to such public accommodation or other entity based on a person’s sex shall grant all persons admission … consistent with the person’s gender identity.”

In 2011, the legislature passed a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender-identity in employment, education and housing, and expanded hate crime legislation to include gender-identity as well.

Conflict over facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms slowed the passage of the bill and that particular language was removed until proponents could reintroduce it at a later date.

“Later is now,” Rushing said of current bill. “We now have a situation in Massachusetts where a protected group is not covered under all the protected areas.”

In 2013, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued a guidance recommending that schools allow students to “access the restroom, locker room, and changing facility that corresponds to the student’s gender identity.”

The policy clarified that transgender students uncomfortable with segregated restrooms “should be provided with a safe and adequate alternative, such as a single ‘unisex’ restroom or the nurse’s restroom.”

The policy does not have the force of law.

Russell Haddock-LaBarre, 21, and his friend Julia Titcomb, 18, traveled from Cape Cod with their mothers to attend Thursday’s rally.

“I came to support being transgender,” Haddock-LaBarre said. “We all deserve privileges as trans people.”

Diane Titcomb said that she wants her daughter to feel safe anywhere.

“As a mom, it’s really frightening,” she said. “And this isn’t just about my daughter, it’s about the whole community.”

Denise Labarre, mother of Haddock-LaBarre, said that she feels the same.

“It’s nerve-wracking going somewhere and not knowing that he’s safe,” she said.

Opponents of the bill question the fairness of asking a teenage girl to share a locker room with a biological male who identifies as female. And, they say, the legislation would make women and girls vulnerable to sexual predators in areas like dressing rooms, common showers and locker rooms.

“It seems to me that it’s clear that men should be using men’s rooms and women should be using women’s rooms, the fact that they’re pushing legislation forward is not taking into consideration some of the rights of the children of Massachusetts,” said Rep. Jim Lyons (R-Andover), a leading opponent of the legislation.

Rushing said that arguments like these are simply a cover for prejudice, comparing them to arguments made against desegregation in the 1950s.

“People said terrible things would happen if you integrate swimming pools and public accommodations that were segregated, like drinking fountains,” he said.

During his unsuccessful 2010 campaign for governor, Charlie Baker opposed the so-called “bathroom bill,” even though his then-running mate Richard Tisei supported it.

In 2014, Governor-Elect Baker expressed support for the law prohibiting gender-identity discrimination in employment, housing, and education but said that he opposed expanding the law to include places of public accommodations, such as bathrooms. A spokesman for Governor Baker on Sunday said that Baker still prefers current law to the proposed expansion.

For his part, Lyons thinks that the bill is unnecessary.

“The [non-discrimination law] was already passed. We already did this,” he said. “Why are we here again?”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or @karabettis