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In An Eros-Infused Society, Beacon Hill Is Still Sex Shy

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Does Beacon Hill have an aversion to sex? You could be forgiven for thinking so after a handful of initiatives concerning sexuality, sexual behavior and gender failed to emerge from this year's raucous legislative finale.

Bills that would have made a specific crime out of "revenge porn," created an 'X' gender designation on state ID cards, banned gay conversion therapy and updated the state's sexual education guidelines all collapsed at the last minute when Democrats pushed their legislative session to the breaking point last week.

"The bottom line is, these bills easily fall into the bucket of "too controversial to touch" if they have to do with sexuality," Deborah Shields, executive director of LGBTQ rights advocacy group MassEquality told WGBH News.

"These are all policy issues which a majority of members support, which I think is a really good thing. I think each individually is a casualty of different pieces," Sen. Julian Cyr said, who lead the charge in the Senate to pass the "Healthy Youth Act" that would update the state's sex ed guidelines to align with medical accuracy and include lessons on gender identity, sexually transmitted diseases and consent.

Arline Isaacson, a key advocate for LGBTQ issues for years on Beacon Hill, said there's historically been a "disinclination to vote on issues relating to sex, to sexuality to gender identity," but that the House and Senate have taken votes to pass patient privacy and access to abortion services.

"So it’s gotten better, but there’s still a sense, particularly in the House, that they don’t like to take up too many issues having to deal with sexuality," Isaacson said. "And in particular for example, we’ve had a hard time moving bills having to do with sex ed in schools. And that’s been a problem for many years.”

Rep. James O'Day, the House sponsor of the sex ed bill said that earlier in the session, he felt encouraged that the legislation could pass this year. Then, he says, social conservative forces like the Massachusetts Family Institute targeted more conservative House Democrats with what he calls misinformation about the bill.

The Massachusetts Family Institute has distributed materials opposing the sexual education bill, saying it takes decisions over what and when to teach out of the hands of local school districts.

“That then puts some of my colleagues in a place where they don’t feel comfortable voting for the bill, and it just seems you can predict what the emails are going to say, whenever this issue starts to get some traction in the legislature," O'Day told WGBH News.

Cyr says that though each piece of legislation died for different and unconnected reasons, there is still a sense on Beacon Hill that interest groups or demographic communities are only granted one or two major pieces of legislation by Democratic leaders. And that legislative oxygen this session, says Shields was taken up by last year's transgender rights law.

"In 2106, the LGBTQ community got nothing besides the transgender civil rights bill. And we were told blatantly 'you can have this bill, or you can have that bill, but not both.' So it is a little appalling, franky," Shields said.

"I think the important thing that we gotta really work to dislodge is the notion on Beacon Hill that this community, that the LGBT community, that the reproductive rights community, only sort of gets one chit or one bill or one or two bills a session. I think that’s not a great way to do policy-making," Cyr said.

Shields said that for an enormous number of Democrats that support sexual and gender legislation on paper are nervous about taking.

"Anything to do with sexuality makes legislators nervous because they always say their conservative constituents will vote them out of office," Shields said.

And it's not just Democrat-lead efforts on sex and gender that find trouble gaining approval in the Legislature. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito backed a bill last spring that would create a new category of crime for sharing nude or sexual images of a person without their consent as a way to combat so-called "revenge porn." The bill, which also let youthful offenders off the hook for child pornography charges if a minor distrubtes images of another minor, was supported by many of the state's district attorneys. The bill went nowhere, wasting away in a House committee for over a year before finally dying when the session closed.

Shields suggested that MassEquality could become more involved on House and Senate races to help unseat members resistant to votes on its agenda items.

"In this session we have an enormous number of progressive candidates who are coming forward in all sorts of districts trying to unset incumbents, especially the most conservative ones," Shields said, before quickly adding, "Or even the moderate ones."

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