Governor Charlie Baker approached a crowd of more than 1,000 executives and activists for the 10th Annual Boston Spirit LGBT Executive Networking Night at the Marriott hotel in Copley Place. Looking out upon a sea of rainbow flags and green shirts (for transgender awareness), Baker addressed opioids, the woes of the MBTA, and dealing with winter snow. “There was a moment...where started to say ‘trans’ and everybody in the audience tensed, and then he said, ‘trans...portation’ and we all sort of deflated,” said Lorelei Erisis, a transgender activist who attended the event and joined Boston Public Radio on Thursday. “He stood up there in front of a room full of gay and lesbian people,” Erisis said, “and he barely even touched on issues that were relevant to the gay and lesbian community.”
Finally, the governor addressed the issue the crowd had been waiting for, the contentious transgender public accommodations bill that has been stalled in committee for months. Governor Baker has insisted that he needs to see more details before he can make a decision, which he repeated to the crowd at the Marriott, insisting he would “talk to all the parties involved,” encouraging the community to “continue to have those conversations” before being loudly booed and excusing himself. “I’ve spoken to a lot of crowds,” Erisis said, “and I could not have concocted a speech more perfectly designed to infuriate an audience.”
The proposed legislation, sometimes referred to as the ‘bathroom bill,’ would protect transgender individuals from discrimination in public spaces. “We talk about restrooms and locker rooms all the time, but what we’re referring to when we talk about public access is anywhere outside your home or your workplace,” Erisis said. “We’re talking about restrooms, of course, but also restaurants, buses, courthouses, homeless shelters, and hospitals. We can be denied medical care, we can be denied all these things, and it’s really dangerous for trans people. You could kick me out of the studio right now, legally speaking, simply for being trans. It’s terrifying.”
I’ve spoken to a lot of crowds, and I could not have concocted a speech more perfectly designed to infuriate an audience.
In states like North Carolina and South Dakota, legislation has been passed to limit access to public spaces —primarily bathrooms and locker rooms— for transgender individuals. The opposition argues that male-presenting people don’t have a place in female spaces, and vice versa. It’s argued as a safety issue, which Erisis says comes from a place of discrimination. “What I can tell you, from nine years of experience of successfully peeing in public restrooms without any trouble whatsoever, is that that’s mainly a scare tactic,” Erisis said. All of the people I encounter in public restrooms, in women’s rooms, are very friendly. They’re very accepting. If anything, they want to talk to me about my hair and my makeup, and I’m just trying to pee.”
Erisis, a towering, blonde, 6”4 woman in an elegant dress, acknowledged that her experiences do not reflect those of every transgender person. Generally, she argues, the idea of safety is a mucher higher-stakes issue for the transgender community. “If I were forced to use the men’s room, it would be physically dangerous,” she said. “There are trans people, trans youth, trans people of color who are being beaten up, who are having really genuinely physical danger.”
Governor Baker has insisted that he needs to hear “all sides of the issue,” which Erisis said does not accurately represent a balanced viewpoint. “The best activism I do is kind of what I think of as ‘barstool activism’ where I go down to the local place, I break out of LGBTQ spaces and I talk to regular people,” she said. “Everyone I’ve spoken to, who aren’t trans, are very supportive of this. All the ‘regular people’ I encounter are supportive of this. For trans people, it’s a matter of life and death. The main opposition has been some very vocal and powerful bigots. We hear that.”
According to research, Erisis may be on to something with her ‘barstool method.’ An April 2015 survey from the Human Rights Campaign and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research shows that people who know someone who is transgender tend to be more accepting of the transgender community.
Jordan Evans serves as secretary of her local Republican Town Committee in Charlton. As a transgender woman, she has no protections in public spaces under state law. As someone who has worked loyally to elect local Republicans to office, including Governor Baker, she wonders what the impact might have been, had she come out sooner while working for her party. “If the governor was aware, would that have changed how he felt?” Evans asked on Boston Public Radio Thursday. “Because it’s not some caricature that you throw together in your mind of what… the enemy looks like, but it’s your friend, it’s someone who has been there with you to help you.”
Evans, a Republican, wrote an open letter to Governor Baker in Commonwealth Magazine, asking him to approve the public accommodations bill. “You’re not like your colleagues in other states who’ve signed bills putting innocent transgender people in the path of danger,” Evans wrote. “You’ve shown you have a willingness to self-educate and evolve on this very important issue, which is why I hope you consider my words. I know you said you need time, but we have an obligation to ensure the basic decency and safety of our fellow Bay Staters, and, honestly, if we’re not fighting for the welfare and decency of every citizen, then what are we fighting for?”
One of Baker’s main points, of course, is that there is no bill to sign. House Speaker Robert DeLeo says he supports the bill, but no bill has emerged from the House. So why not put pressure on the legislature, instead of just on Baker?
“Unlike Governor Baker, there’s already a contingency that’s applying pressure towards Speaker DeLeo,” Evans said. “I know he’s trying to conduct some internal polling of the state legislature to see who is going to be for this and who is going to be against this, but the way I see it...there is less of an internal push on Baker.”
Senate President Stan Rosenberg told business leaders Wednesday that the Senate will debate the bill next month.
Lorelei Erisis is a local transgender activist, columnist for The Rainbow Times, performer and filmmaker. Jordan Evans serves as secretary of her local Republican Town Committee in Charlton, MA. To hear their full interview, click on the audio link above.