Public accommodations bill and transgender rights ignite national controversy

2016 has seen a national furor over transgender rights and liberties. Since North Carolina’s recent passage of a bill that bans anti-discrimination practices and requires transgendered people in public schools and government buildings to use the bathroom that corresponds with their biological sex at birth, the divide between liberal, diversity-advocating companies and conservative ones has been widened as the states of Georgia and Mississippi have followed North Carolina’s suit. Though these states have received major backlash from government officials and celebrities alike, their laws still stand, and the nation is looking to the other states to see if they will try to bring about change.

The considerably liberal state of Massachusetts just passed a bill that prevents the discrimination that North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi condone. According to Freedom Massachusetts, the Act Relative to Transgender Anti-Discrimination (Senate Bill #735) adds gender identity to the list of characteristics protected by the Massachusetts civil rights law for public accommodations. This bill allows transgender individuals to use “sex-segregated facilities consistent with their gender identity” and protects said individuals from discrimination in these areas. As the term “public accommodations” encompasses any place not at home, work, or school, transgender people in Massachusetts now retain their right to shop, eat, or be served anywhere they like without facing discrimination. The Massachusetts Senate passed this legislation on May 12 by a 33-4 vote. Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker now has to either sign or veto the bill.

Massachusetts was not the first state to enact this bill as legislation. Though Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage, 17 states and Washington D.C. had already passed comparable laws.

Fueling the national standoff over transgender rights, Governor Baker was booed off the stage of the Marriott Hotel during the the 10th Annual Boston Spirit LGBT Executive Networking Night on April 13 due to his refusal to commit to sign this public accommodations bill. Though Baker has since expressed words of encouragement for the bill, he still has yet to say whether he will sign the legislation.

Many attendees of the event were shocked by Baker’s noncommittal position. “I really thought he was going to be a leader,” said an attendee who had recently moved back to Massachusetts because he thought the state had protection for transgender individuals.

In reference to Baker’s lack of commitment to the bill, Emily Clarke ’17 added: “It really makes you think about what politicians will do to get followers. How can this be happening in Massachusetts? I thought we were way above this level of discrimination.”

Tests of federal and state power are rising to the surface in North Carolina, the center of this debate, over a similar public accommodations bill called The Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, or HB2. According to the New York Times, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and the Justice Department sued each other on May 9, the Justice Department suing for North Carolina’s refusal to abide by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and McCrory suing for the federal government’s “baseless and blatant overreach” and “radical reinterpretation” of the act. Questions of whether allowing public facilities to follow a “discriminatory policy” against transgender people is legal is a topic that will be reviewed by the courts later this spring.

Many companies and celebrities have shown their support for the transgender community by refusing to service North Carolina. Deutsche Bank and Paypal have retracted their expansion plans in Charlotte, and singers Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas cancelled their tours in Raleigh and Charlotte and later gave a statement that read: “One of the goals for the tour has always been to create an atmosphere where every single attendee feels equal, included, and accepted for who they are.” Bruce Springsteen also cancelled his concert in Greensboro in April, stating that the cancellation was a testament to his “fight against prejudice and bigotry.”

Image: One of Dana Hall’s all-gender restrooms, created in summer 2015.

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