Dear Jo: State Sen. Jo Comerford answers questions about protecting LGBTQ civil rights

  • Jo Comerford

Published: 7/4/2019 4:13:59 PM
Editor’s note: If you have a question for the senator’s monthly “Dear Jo” column, in which she answers constituent questions, please submit to and

DEAR JO: Given the increasing threats to LGBTQ people nationally, what is the status of your efforts to enable transgender/nonbinary folks to identify on state documents and what else are you doing to protect the rights and safety of LGBTQ constituents?

—Michael DeChiara

DEAR MICHAEL: Thank you for these important questions, especially on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which many credit as helping to propel the advancement of LGBTQ rights in our nation.

I’m proud to have filed three bills related to your questions. I’ve also co-sponsored legislation filed by my colleagues.

Gender X legislation

People know what gender they are. For some, the categories of female or male are overly rigid and restrictive. Forcing everyone into that binary gender choice violates the right to self-identify.

“An act relative to gender identity on Massachusetts identification,” which I am proud to have filed, passed the Senate on April 25 with a bipartisan vote of 39-1.

The bill allows people to choose a nonbinary gender designation on their state documents by requiring the Registry of Motor Vehicles to list the choices as M, F or X — an understood nonbinary option — on driver’s licenses, state identification cards and liquor-purchase identification cards.

It allows parents, guardians, emancipated minors and adults to amend gender on birth certificates. And it requires the state to transition all other official documents and forms.

This is not a new idea.

Many states have passed similar legislation around licenses, and eight states offer nonbinary markers on birth certificates. Governing Magazine estimates that about one-third of the U.S. population lives in a place that allows nonbinary identification on official documents.

Experience from those states demonstrates that enacting this legislation will not interfere with Real IDs, selective service or Amber Alerts. And it’s worth noting that major airlines are moving to allow for gender options such as “unspecified” or “undisclosed” on ticket purchase forms.

Thanks to Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, for filing a similar bill in the House and working hard toward its passage in that chamber.

When we prevail, Massachusetts will simply and rightfully uphold gender identification on IDs that match the diversity of our people.

Preventing LGBTQ youth suicide

I filed an act adding a suicide prevention hotline number on student identification cards. It requires that public schools serving students in grades seven through 12, and public or private institutions of higher education, print the telephone numbers for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Crisis Text Line and the school’s campus police or security telephone number on all student ID cards.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for young people in the United States.​​​​​ While suicide rates in Massachusetts have increased by over 35 percent in the past 20 years, the risk is especially high for LGBTQ youth who are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide than their straight peers.

Largely because of inadequate state funding, many school-based mental health services can be overstretched and not able to provide support for students outside of standard office hours. Students report not knowing that school-based support is available or perceiving them as difficult to access. Students also report being concerned about the stigma that may follow if school employees know they are struggling.

Putting crisis phone numbers on the back of ID cards would ensure that every student is aware of free, confidential resources available to them at any time.

Banning gay/trans ‘panic’ defense

The gay/trans “panic” defense allows a jury to consider excusing a defendant’s possible violent action, reaction or loss of self-control because of the victim’s perceived or actual gender identity or sexual orientation.

When the defense is employed, the perpetrator claims that their victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity not only explains but excuses their loss of self-control and violence.

My bill, “An act relative to protecting LGBTQ victims,” prohibits using a victim’s gender or sexual orientation as an excuse for the provocation of an act of violence.

“Panic” defenses have been used dozens of times nationally, including in Massachusetts. They send the dangerous message that violence against LGBTQ people can be understandable or excusable.

I’m delighted that U.S. Sen. Ed Markey and U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy recently filed a similar bill at the federal level recognizing the need for government to intervene to protect the civil and human rights of LGBTQ community members. The New York legislature passed legislation to ban the gay panic defense last month, and I hope Massachusetts will do the same this session.

You can find more about the legislation that I’ve sponsored and co-sponsored here:

State Sen. Jo Comerford represents 160,000 people living in 24 cities and towns in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the Massachusetts Legislature.

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