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May 12, 2016

Transgender bill opponents argue case ahead of senate vote

Antonio Caban/SHNS Kaeley Triller, a sex assault survivor from Washington State, joined others opposed to a transgender public accommodations bill at a State House press conference organized by Massachusetts Family Institute.

A day before the state Senate plans to take up a bill establishing protections for transgender people using public facilities, opponents gathered at the State House to decry a provision in the bill they said could put women and girls at risk.

The bill bans discrimination based on gender identity and would allow people to use bathrooms, locker rooms and other sex-segregated facilities that correspond with their gender identity rather than physical anatomy.

Speakers at a Massachusetts Family Institute press conference on Wednesday raised concerns that the bill's language was too vague, opening up the possibility that predators could use it as cover to excuse their presence in women-only spaces.

"As a lawyer, I absolutely deplore the subjective standards that are used in this bill," attorney Bridget Fay said. "It's about, 'Well I can say I feel like a woman.' It's not about an objective standard. An objective standard protects both sides. It protects the people who think that somebody's overstepping their bounds...and it also protects people who might be told they're not allowed to do something they want to do. No matter what our laws say, they should be objective."

The Senate on Thursday plans to debate its version of the public accommodations bill (S 735). Senate President Stanley Rosenberg has said the chamber has the necessary votes to pass the bill.

"Discrimination is not a buzzword. It is a very real problem faced by transgender people in Massachusetts every day," Rosenberg said in a statement. "It is imperative that we end discrimination against transgender people as soon as possible. The suggestion that passage of the Public Accommodations bill will bring 'an unwanted male presence' into women's rooms is erroneous. Transgender men are men, and transgender women are women."

A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released this week found that 53 percent of voters support passage of the bill, while 30 percent oppose it and 15 percent remain undecided.

Critics of the bill said their voices have been silenced in a debate that sometimes casts them as prejudiced, a label they said is inaccurate.

"Do we need reasonable accommodations for transgender individuals? Absolutely," said Kaeley Triller, a survivor of sexual assault who has spoken out against similar legislation in other states. "Do we need to be respectful of their safety and their privacy? Yes, emphatically yes. But that doesn't need to look like stripping voices from people who are also already vulnerable. It doesn't need to look like telling women that they need to get over it."

Triller said she lost her communications job at a YMCA in Washington state after refusing to draft talking points for the agency on a public accommodations law there. Triller said her abuser watched her in the shower when she was a child.

The idea that male predators could misrepresent their gender identity to enter women's locker rooms "feels re-traumatizing," Triller said.

Rep. Shaunna O'Connell, a Taunton Republican, said that the law's vague definition of gender identity would make "bathrooms and locker rooms basically a free-for-all" for people with "nefarious intentions."

Rep. Jim Lyons, an Andover Republican who was one of two Judiciary Committee members to vote against the bill, said it was the product of "progressives pushing a radical social agenda upon us."

"This is a very, very serious bill that we have to fight back and prevent this from taking place, because they are trying to basically change society," he said.

Republican Reps. Geoff Diehl, Joseph McKenna and Kevin Kuros and Democrat Rep. Dennis Rosa stood with Lyons and O'Connell during the press conference, alongside about 20 people who held signs saying "No Bathroom Bill."

Supporters of the bill quickly countered statements made during the event.

Freedom Massachusetts, the campaign backing the public accommodations bill, issued a statement highlighting support for the legislation from organizations that work to prevent sexual assault and help survivors. The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and the Victim Rights Law Center are among the organizations in favor of the bill.

"Seventeen other states have passed protections, and they are working just fine in those states," Freedom Massachusetts campaign manager Carly Burton told the News Service.

Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said the bill's critics were "neglecting to point out...that transgender people are discriminated against every time they walk out their front door."

"They are victims regularly," Isaacson said. "Most trans people don't tell their legislators about it. Most trans people don't call the police when it happens. They suffer in silence or they tell their friends, at most. This bill will solve that problem."

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