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Transgender Rights: The Fierce Imperative Of Now

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A flag representing the transgender community, right, flies next to the Massachusetts state flag, left, and an American flag, behind, in front of Boston City Hall, Monday, May 2, 2016, in Boston. Democratic Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a supporter of transgender rights, said Monday the flag will continue to fly until everyone is equal under the law in Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

For nearly 50 years, Massachusetts has had the reputation of being a leader when it comes to protecting the rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. The first openly gay members of Congress represented the Commonwealth, and Massachusetts was the first state in the nation to grant couples of the same sex the right to marry. But while the Commonwealth passed important legal protections for members of the transgender community in 2011, we are in danger of seeing the state fall behind on transgender rights if the legislature fails to enact the public accommodations bill currently before it.

According to a 2014 study of transgender individuals by Fenway Health, 65 percent of respondents to the study reported discrimination in one or more public accommodation settings in the year prior to the survey. That report also found that individuals who had experienced discrimination were 84 percent more likely to experience adverse physical symptoms and were 99 percent more at risk to experience negative emotional symptoms. Discrimination against transgender men and women is real and its impact on those who experience it is painful.

An important part of the solution is to extend the same protections regarding public accommodation to transgender individuals that the rest of us possess. Current Massachusetts law prohibits discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, sex, and religion. There is no reason not to include "gender identity" among this list. 

There are those who argue that by extending this protection to transgender men and women, the Commonwealth will be requiring businesses to build new bathrooms or will be exposing individuals-- especially women and children-- to danger. The truth is that such arguments are recycling the false, dangerous stereotypes regarding transgender individuals that we used to see applied to gay men and women. Transgender men and women are not interested in gaining access to bathrooms to hurt anyone; they merely want to use the bathroom. Massachusetts already dispelled those false images, which for so long were used to demonize gays, lesbians, and bisexuals-- and we should do the same in behalf of our transgender neighbors, colleagues and friends.

We are seeing other parts of the country regress when it comes to transgender rights. Recently, North Carolina passed legislation that overturned an ordinance from the City of Charlotte that would have extended civil rights to transgender men and women. The legislature in Georgia also passed a bill that would have restricted rights for members of the LGBT community there, though that state's Republican governor, Nathan Deal, wisely vetoed that legislation. North Carolina is already facing a backlash from the business community for its anti-trans stance. Corporations across the country have long-since recognized that alienating the LGBT community is bad for business.

That is why it was discouraging to see that the public accommodations bill seemed to languish in the Massachusetts State House. While the situation in Massachusetts cannot be compared to North Carolina or Georgia, the Bay State lags behind 17 other states and the District of Columbia, which have already enacted laws that protect gender identity in public spaces. It is disappointing that Massachusetts is not leading, as it once did, in the expansion of LGBT rights. But we still have the opportunity to do the right thing.

Since the Stonewall Riots in 1969, members of the LGBT community have seen immense progress made in protecting our civil and human rights, especially in communities like Boston and across the Commonwealth. Yet experience has also taught us that we must continue to protect the gains we've made, and to fight each day for expansion of those rights. Transgender members of our community deserve the right to live their lives free from harassment or discrimination. If Massachusetts wants to retain its status as a beacon in protecting LGBT rights and a state where members of the LGBT community feel safe, we must pass the public accommodations bill.

Sylvain Bruni is the president of Boston Pride.

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