Chorus for and against ‘Bathroom Bills’ builds on Beacon Hill

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BOSTON – The Massachusetts Family Institute, an advocacy group, and Attorney General Maura Healey added their voices this week to the chorus gathering around lawmakers urging action on bills that would mandate access to public restrooms and other accommodations for transgender individuals and protect them from harassment.

On Tuesday, the state’s entire congressional delegation pressed lawmakers to pass the measures pending in legislative committees, either signing a letter written by U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Brookline) or saying they supported its message.

On Monday, writing to state Rep. Paul Tucker (D-Salem), Healey said the bills in question, S 735 and H 1577, would more adequately protect transgender people from harassment than current law. The measures would ban gender-identity discrimination in public places such as hospitals, restaurants and parks.

“Opponents to this legislation have invoked decisions from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in seeking to justify their view,” Healey wrote. “Those interpretations are not binding on our courts, so they do not provide clear notice to all people and all businesses across this state that gender identity-based discrimination in places of public accommodation is illegal.”

The Family Institute appealed to legislators to dismiss the measures as unnecessary, in a letter to lawmakers dated Thursday. What’s more, Andrew Beckwith, the organization’s president wrote, “this bill specifically eliminates protections for women and children in bathrooms and locker rooms,” in terms of their privacy.

The bills also would create “massive liability” for smaller businesses, Beckwith said. He dismissed arguments that current law doesn’t protect people with gender-identity disorder, or gender dysphoria.

“State records demonstrate this is simply not the case,” Beckwith said. “In short, this bill ignores the axiom, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.’”

Beckwith also pointed out that a similar provision was eliminated from an earlier bill, the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act, when it was passed by lawmakers in 2011. “The legislature then wisely understood the danger posed by opening up intimate public facilities to either sex.”

But Healey, citing the 2011 legislation, said lawmakers at the time recognized the need for a law to protect transgender people in workplaces. She said “such clarity is necessary to address discrimination in places of public accommodation as well.”

The objections posed by Beckwith drew support from state Rep. Jim Lyons (R-Andover), who has opposed the measures. He is a member of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary which recently held a hearing on the bills.

“It seems we have many more important issues we should be discussing,” Lyons said about the issue, mentioning the state’s opioid crisis and efforts to open up public records in Massachusetts. “Rather than take away privacy rights from our children, we ought to be focusing on issues that the general public are concerned about.”

Supporters of the transgender bills say that the timing is essential to protect children with gender dysphoria, especially from harassment at school or in public places.

Earlier this week, Kennedy and U.S. Reps. Niki Tsongas, Katherine Clark, William Keating, Seth Moulton, Jim McGovern and U.S. Sen. Edward Markey signed letters urging passage to House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst), the Associated Press reported. Both Healey and Kennedy have testified in favor of the measures at legislative hearings.

“None of our transgender neighbors should be denied service at a coffee shop or be harassed in public restrooms because of who they are,” the lawmakers said in the letter. “None of our transgender children should encounter exclusion or intimidation that makes them shy away from participating in the life of their communities.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis