By Daniela Jusino
The numbers on a piece of state legislation might mean nothing to the general public. It’s those that are on the frontlines of advocacy that consider House Bill 1577 or H1577 a pivotal bill that demands attention in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
State Rep.Denise Provost, from Somerville, initially proposed this public accommodations bill that would grant equal rights to all.
“[I filed the bill] because under the law in Massachusetts, we don’t guarantee the equal treatment of transgender people and we ought to – we need to,” said Provost.
In 2011, a bill was passed and signed into law to include gender identity under the basis of sex discrimination. This meant that no one could be fired, not hired or legally discriminated against on the basis of sex or gender identity.
“What the bill left out [were] protections and public accommodations, which are all public spaces that are open to the public,” said Carly Burton, a campaign manager for Freedom Massachusetts, a transgender advocacy organization. “The fact that that was left out, we knew that it meant that people weren’t explicitly protected. We knew that we would go back and fight for that,” she said.
Members of the transgender community see this bill as a monumental decision that the state would take to say that it stands by their rights. Conservative groups, however, like Massachusetts Family Institute, refer to it as the “Bathroom Bill” and insist that this piece of legislation would create safety issues in these public spaces.
“One of the misconceptions about the public accommodations bill is that they specifically have to do with bathrooms, [but] it’s a bit misleading to call it a bathroom bill,” said Ma’ayan Anafi, Policy Council for the National Center for Transgender Equality.
In actuality, the public accommodations bill aims to grant everyone the opportunity to freely be in a public space. Public spaces go beyond just restrooms and locker rooms. Restaurants, parks, museums are all included, as is anywhere that is not one’s home, work or school.
“[Passing H1577] sends a strong message that the state supports the transgender community and making sure that the transgender community is able to live fully authentic lives. And that’s really powerful,” said Burton.
Without H1577, the transgender community claims its members face much uncertainty when it comes to public restroom use. In fact, many have reported harassment when using sex-segregated spaces. Provost sets the record straight on the laws that are or are not being broken – and how it still affects transgender people.
“There is no law from preventing anyone from going into any bathroom. That hasn’t stopped people from taking it upon themselves to decide that they need to make up their own rules,” said Provost. “I am aware of a facility along a major road way that was a stop for a transgender person and a patron went to the manager when this woman was freshening up and say ‘I think this person is not really a woman’ and the manager went in and said, ‘You’re not welcome here anymore.’”
State Rep. Jim Lyons, on the other hand, thinks that passing H1577 would be an issue of public safety. He and the Massachusetts Family Institute meet regularly for State House lobby days in order to raise awareness to stop what they call the Bathroom Bill from passing.
“If we let that piece of legislation go, we’re basically saying that gender identity in Massachusetts is decided by whatever you get up and decide you are on a particular day,” said Lyons. “So our children are going to grow up and not have any idea that there is male and there is female. And that’s simply wrong.”
MFI President Andrew Beckwith said the reason the group is against H1577 is because issues of discrimination are currently being handled successfully as is, and because of how ambiguous the laws are already.
“Under Massachusetts state law, the definition of gender identity is very broad. It does not require any kind of medical or psychological certification, or even consistency of expression. If an anatomical man woke up that morning and decided he wanted to express himself as a female, then by law he has every right to be in that changing room,” said Beckwith.
As of the end of April, the bill is still in the Joint Judiciary committee and has yet to be voted on. H1577, however, has already garnered support from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Massachusetts’ Attorney General Maura Healey and most recently, Gov.Charlie Baker, who is awaiting the final legislation before indicating if he will sign it into law..