Baker offers fresh hints on ‘bathroom bill’ stance

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BOSTON – Remarking Thursday on reports that Donald Trump opposes a North Carolina law regarding public facilities access by transgender people, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker sent fresh signals about how he might react should a “bathroom bill” dealing with the issue reach his desk.

The Republican presidential contender from New York, appearing in a forum-style event on NBC News, said North Carolina should “leave it the way it is right now” and let people use the bathroom in which they feel most comfortable.

While he was remarking on a law that took effect in North Carolina last month and requires transgender people to use bathrooms, locker room and other sex-segregated public facilities that correspond to their anatomy at birth rather than their gender identity, Trump’s comments were widely reported as opposed to the recently enacted law. The law overrode and bars municipal ordinances that had been effect allowing transgender people to use facilities corresponding to their gender identity.

Baker has already expressed his opposition to the North Carolina law. But when asked in an appearance on WGBH-FM about Trump’s comments on the hot-button issue, Baker reiterated his view that no one should be discriminated against. And later his spokeswoman, Lizzy Guyton, issued a statement saying “the governor believes people should use the restroom facility they feel comfortable using,” which went further than he has in the past on the issue.

“Governor Baker is pleased Massachusetts public schools adhere to policies that accommodate transgender students’ needs and believes employers should also accommodate transgender individuals’ needs,” Guyton said. “The governor supports 2011 transgender protections and believes no one should be discriminated against based on their gender identity, and looks forward to reviewing a bill should the legislature act.”

While the administration stressed that the governor was simply responding to Trump’s comments and not declaring support for the bathroom bill pending in the Legislature, his comments are sure to be parsed by advocates and lawmakers as leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate weigh when or if to bring the bill to a vote.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, has said the Senate will debate the bill in May, while House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, has said he wants to be sure he has the votes to override a potential Baker veto before calling for a vote.

Last week, one of the bill’s sponsors Rep. Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, suggested DeLeo was waiting until after the deadline for candidates to declare their intention to run for legislative seats in November to put some members at ease over taking a stand on the controversial issue.

Not all transgender rights advocates saw Baker’s comment as a positive sign.

Baker’s comments amounted to “damage control” after he was booed last week at a Boston event, said Kevin Franck, a former Democratic Party spokesman and columnist for Bay Windows, a publication aimed at the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender audience. Franck has been critical of Baker over the issue.

“He’s playing games now to avoid facing the kind of backlash his fellow Republican governors have seen elsewhere, but we know where his heart is,” Franck said by email, adding that he is treating supporters of the measure as “fools.”

“The only strategy that will guarantee passage of this important civil rights legislation is to work with Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Rosenberg to win over a veto-proof majority in the legislature,” Franck said. “For Freedom Mass or any other group to waste time on Baker is folly, bordering on political malpractice.” Freedom Massachusetts is an advocacy group that supports the bathroom bill.

On WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio” show, the governor didn’t go as far as his statement, but he was pressed by host Jim Braude, who told the governor that he couldn’t see the moderate Republican vetoing a transgender rights bill.

Baker, who has long voiced support for same-sex marriage, repeated that he looked forward to reviewing whatever the Legislature might send to him. But, he added, “I take tremendous pride in the fact that on many of these issues I’ve been on what I would describe as the right side of history.”

(As for Trump, he later clarified his stance on the issue, declaring that access to bathrooms and locker rooms for transgender people should be left to state and local governments to decide, and not determined by federal law, CBS News reported Friday. Federal education law may already require public schools to allow transgender people to use facilities of their choice, as it bans discrimination based on sex, and President Barack Obama’s administration has advanced an interpretation of the statutes to include banning discrimination based on gender identity, the has reported.)

Bathroom bill opponent Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, earlier in the day told the News Service that his group doesn’t want anyone to be harassed or kicked out of public places.

“The reason why this bill is referred as the bathroom bill is because that’s focused in on where there are real concerns about privacy and safety for an overwhelming majority of residents, especially women and children,” Beckwith said. “No one is arguing that individuals with gender identity issues should be prevented from using a movie theater or a hospital, but there are some facilities that are lawfully sex-segregated for what should be very obvious reasons. That’s where the rubber hits the road.”