BOSTON — Efforts to protect transgender individuals' access to public places — including bathrooms and locker rooms — continue to be snared by concerns over privacy and safety on Beacon Hill.

The state Senate is expected to take up a proposal next week to bar discrimination against transgender people in stores, restaurants and public facilities.

Supporters say the bill simply expands on existing law. But the proposal is viewed as controversial because it protects access to bathrooms or locker rooms corresponding with someone's gender identity, rather than an individual's anatomical sex.

Opponents call it a “bathroom bill” that allows biological men to access women’s restrooms and locker rooms for nefarious reasons.

A vote has been delayed for months amid wrangling by lawmakers and opposition from conservative groups. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has infuriated transgender activists with his reluctance to publicly support the proposal. In April, Baker was booed off the stage at an LGBT event in Boston where he was the keynote speaker.

“It’s a misguided attempt to do the right thing,” said Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute. “This is a case where one individual’s right to express themselves with a gender identity will violate another person’s right to privacy and perhaps even safety.”

Supporters, including several North Shore lawmakers, frame the debate as a matter of civil rights and closing loopholes in the state's anti-discrimination laws.

"It's a strongly held personal belief that everyone has a right to be protected against discrimination," said state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, who cosponsored the bill when it was filed last year. "What this bill does is add a gender identity to a long list of other descriptions of people." 

"We have been working on this bill for years, and we have more allies than ever before," said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "We're confident that this finally has enough support to pass."

Lawmakers divided

Even if the proposal is picking up momentum, it is dividing some lawmakers, and not just along party lines. Republicans and even some Democrats have raised concerns.

"They want to take away a long-held expectation of privacy in the boys' and girls' rooms," said state Rep. Jim Lyons, R-Andover, one of three members of the Judiciary Committee who voted against the bill.

"It's just common sense that boys should use the boys' room and that girls should use the girls' room," he said.

State Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, also has concerns. He said the state already protects transgender individuals from discrimination, and he argued this proposal goes too far.

"I can't support something allowing a person who is anatomically male to go where women and girls disrobe," he said.

State Sen. Kathleen O'Connor-Ives, D-Newburyport, said she "supports the goal of the bill" to protect transgender people from discrimination, but she wants safeguards added to protect women.

"This is about expanding civil rights, and the legislation we pass should contain clear language that prevents the law from being misinterpreted as making all bathrooms, locker rooms and changing areas unisex," she said.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, both of whom support the bill, have tried to win over skeptics and ensure the Democrat-controlled Legislature has enough votes to override a potential veto by Baker.

Last week, Baker suggested he won't veto the bill. But supporters aren't leaving anything to chance.

"This is protection for people who need it, and we need to pass it," said state Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, who voted to move a new version of the bill out of committee last week. "It's the right thing to do."

Like Ehrlich, state Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, also views the bill as a civil rights matter. 

In terms of men using women's bathrooms for possible criminal activity, Lovely said, none of this has occurred since the state allowed high school students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, starting in 2012.

"Very strong" criminal laws will be used "if someone is acting inappropriately," she said.

State Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, another cosponsor of the bill, said he remembers when a longtime Danvers firefighter revealed his plan to have a sex change operation and asked the town to recognize him instead as a woman.

"It was quite enlightening to us as a community," Speliotis said.

Being transgender is ingrained deep in that person, he added. "People wouldn't subject themselves to such a painful and difficult display if they didn't have these feelings."

Potential effects

The debate echoes controversy over measures in other states.

North Carolina and Mississippi passed laws this year banning anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people, triggering a loud, costly backlash.

PayPal and Deutsche Bank were among the large companies that called off proposed expansions in North Carolina due to its law, which observers said could eventually cost the state millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Critics of Mississippi's law called for a boycott of the tourism-dependent Magnolia State.

While those states' laws are the opposite of what's proposed in Massachusetts, advocates for transgender people say legislators here should consider the potential impact of inaction.

"Failing to pass a transgender protections bill will make Massachusetts less competitive and less attractive economically," said Carly Burton, campaign manager of Freedom Massachusetts, a coalition of LGBT rights and business groups backing the legislation.

The Boston Chamber of Commerce supports the bill, but business groups on the North Shore and Merrimack Valley have largely stayed out of the debate.

"Nobody is talking about it," said Joe Bevilacqua, President and CEO of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce. "It hasn't been raised as an issue for us, so we haven't taken it up. We're focused on other business right now."

Local protections

At least a dozen communities — including Salem, Cambridge, Northampton, Amherst and Boston — have passed laws in recent years protecting access for transgender people to public bathrooms and other accommodations.

On Monday, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and other city officials raised a transgender pride flag over Boston City Hall to show support for the bill. Walsh said the blue, pink and white flag will fly until the legislation is approved.

In Salem, Mayor Kim Driscoll said there haven't been any incidents in public bathrooms or lockers since her city passed an anti-discrimination law two years ago.

If anything, she said, there have been claims of discrimination against transgender individuals.

Salem resident and LGBT activist Gary “Duchess Gigi” Gill said the family association and others who argue transgender people could be victimizing others in restrooms have it backward.

“The reality is transgender people face violence and discrimination in public places every day,” Gill said. "I've seen it in housing, in restrooms, restaurants and in one-on-one interactions with people who really just don't understand."

In 2012, the Massachusetts Transgender Equal Rights Act added gender identity to categories of hate crimes law and forbid discrimination against transgender people in employment, housing and credit.

But a provision protecting transgender individuals in public places was dropped from the final version of that law.

Of 17 states with nondiscrimination laws, Massachusetts remains the only one to omit the protections.

"This is about protecting human rights — it's as simple as that," Gill said. "We deserve the same rights and protections as anyone else."

Christian Wade covers the Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Reach him at Staff writer Arianna MacNeill contributed to this article.

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