OP-Ed: Proudly Voting For the Next Step in Massachusetts Civil Rights

The House Gallery, after the historic vote was recorded - Image (c) Rep. Brian Mannell (Barnstable), 2016 all rights recorded - Click image to view at full resolution
The House Gallery, after the historic June 1 vote was recorded – Image (c) Rep. Brian Mannal (D-Barnstable), 2016 all rights reserved – Click image to view at full resolution

By State Representative Ken Gordon (D-Bedford)

Op-EdYesterday afternoon I cast a vote to protect the civil rights of one of the most persecuted groups in our community.  I joined the governor and eight House Republican colleagues in supporting this bi-partisan effort to protect a small, yet victimized segment of our population. The vote passed with a vote of 116-36.  Transgender people represent only about one-third of one-percent of our community, but because they ARE members of our community, they have a right to enjoy the same civil rights as everyone else.  On June 1 we extended the same protections we all enjoy to these members of our community so they cannot be kicked off a bus or a train, ignored at a retail store, or refused service at a restaurant.

I am aware that the objection to this proposed law does not concern transportation, retail shopping, or public food establishments. It concerns bathrooms and locker rooms. It has been dubbed “the bathroom bill” and conservative groups have attempted to convince our residents that it will threaten the safety and privacy of women and girls in restrooms.  They claim that safeguarding the civil rights of this small group of people will somehow make the rest of us less safe.

There is simply no evidence or experience, however, to support these claims. Seventeen states and 225 cities have already passed laws that protect transgender civil rights, including the right to use the restroom of the gender the person identifies with. We can look to the experience of those states and cities. There is no documented instance where a transgender person or a person pretending to be transgender has gone into a bathroom for a nefarious purpose.  Seventeen states: more than one-third of our nation.

There is good reason such a threat has never materialized. The argument that sexual predators or pedophiles are waiting for Massachusetts to pass this civil rights bill so they can go into a bathroom and commit these crimes makes no sense. We already have, andwe vigorously enforce, strong laws against pedophilia and sexual assault, and we will continue to do so.This law would not make such criminal conduct legal. Perpetrators could not commit these crimes and then defend themselves by claiming they had a right to be in the room because they are transgender. If someone believes that a person is pretending to be transgender, they can still complain, and if there is some reason to believe that person is not in the bathroom simply to use the facility this bill will not protect them.   The only thing this bill will do is permit them to use the bathroom, just like anyone else.

Many places around the world use unisex rest rooms.  A constituent in Burlington who is otherwise socially conservative told me that as to this issue she is comfortable with unisex bathrooms, because she lived in Europe for some time and it worked out just fine.  According to an article in Time Magazine, gender segregated bathrooms began in Massachusetts in 1887 during the industrial revolution as a way of keeping women apart from men in the workplace.  Women were given separate cars in trains and separate reading rooms in libraries.

So why is this law needed? While there is no reported instance of a transgender person or a person pretending to be transgender bothering a person in a bathroom, there is evidence that transgender people are in fear and at risk using the bathroom where they fit in. In contrast, according to a 2013 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, 70% of transgender individuals reported being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms. Meanwhile, research conducted by Massachusetts-based 2014 Fenway Health shows 65% of transgender people reported discrimination in public accommodation settings in the previous year. These fears are grounded in experience, not prediction.

A constituent wrote to me just Tuesday to explain the fear and anxiety that her transgender child feels, because she has been humiliated in a public accommodation and is concerned it will happen again.  Today I cast a vote to protect her daughter.  She and her mom understand why I cast it.  Just as with other civil rights advances we have made in the past, I am confident that in the future we will look back on this vote as the right thing to do.