As Equality Act is debated in D.C., gender equality-focused bills collect support at State House

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 3/16/2021 8:45:43 PM

BOSTON – As Congress debates passing a landmark bill to bar discrimination based on gender identity, Massachusetts lawmakers are looking to expand protections already on the books.

The Equality Act,” passed by the U.S. House on Feb. 25, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964, adding language that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The protections would apply to the workplace, federal programs and public housing, among other facets of life for LGBTQ Americans. It would essentially codify and build on the 2020 Supreme Court Bostock v. Clayton County ruling that found parts of the Civil Rights Act covered gay, lesbian and transgender citizens when it came to workplace discrimination on the basis of a person’s sex.

Similar protections were added to Massachusetts laws in 2011, when former Gov. Deval Patrick signed ”“An Act Relative to Gender Identity,” adding “gender identity” to the list of protected classes in multiple anti-discrimination sections of the state’s General Laws. Protections were expanded to include “any place of public accommodation” in 2016, when Gov. Charlie Baker signed ”An Act relative to transgender anti-discrimination.”

Including separate legislation passed by state lawmakers over the years, such as the ban on gay conversion therapy for minors in 2019, Massachusetts is recognized as one of the nation’s leaders when it comes to gender equality. High marks from groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and Movement Advancement Project denote the state’s status, but for lawmakers like state Rep. Jack Patrick Lewis, D-Framingham, there is more to do.

“We should feel good about the important steps we’ve taken, but it is so important that we not rest on our laurels, that we not think that we somehow ‘have arrived’ on any of these issues,” Lewis said.

‘Gay/trans panic defense’

While Lewis and other legislators remain focused on the state’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and other pandemic-related matters, he has also filed or co-sponsored gender equality legislation.

Among the recent bills is “An Act protecting LGBTQ victims,” which is aimed at what is known as a “gay/trans panic defense” in court. These defenses usually consist of defendants claiming the discovery of a victim’s actual or perceived sex during a romantic or sexual encounter justified some form of violent reaction.

Under the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Natalie M. Blais, D-Sunderland, and state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, defendants would “not be justified in using force” and that, in the event a defendant attempts to use discovery of a victim’s sex as evidence, the court would be instructed to ask juries to “disregard biases or prejudices regarding a person’s actual or perceived sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, gender expression or sex assigned at birth in reaching a verdict.”

At least 11 states and the District of Columbia have some form of panic defense ban enacted, with states like Virginia on the verge of signing their own ban into law. Virginia’s own progress prompted supporters such as Jordan Meehan, a policy coordinator for the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth, to remind residents that lawmakers could pass a similar ban this session.

“A reminder: Massachusetts still has not banned the gay/trans panic defense,” Meehan said on Twitter. “But we could!”

We could and will!” Blais tweeted back.

Additional ID options

Among other legislation, Comerford also filed “An Act relative to gender identity on Massachusetts identification,” a bill previously filed and supported by Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland.

The legislation aims to add an additional option to state ID cards, such as driver licenses, adding a non-binary “X” marker, to the current “Male” or “Female” options.

While the Registry of Motor Vehicles added such an option in 2019, Comerford’s bill would codify and extend the option to other documents issued by a state agency that asks residents to indicate their gender.

In a statement, Comerford said the current binary options are “limited and overly restrictive,” and have “created a situation where the government is infringing on people’s right to self-identify.”

“People know what gender they are,” Comerford said. “This bill simply allows their official documents to match how they self-identify … it allows for the commonwealth to recognize gender identification and IDs as diverse as our people.”

Critics of past versions of the bill include the Massachusetts Family Institute and former House lawmaker and state GOP Chairman, Jim Lyons, who, according to the State House News Service, had concerns regarding public safety and potential confusion for law enforcement.

In 2018, still serving as a representative, Lyons also played a role in getting the bill pulled before receiving a final vote in the House, introducing dozens of amendments to add additional gender options, taking up time in the waning days of the session.

“If you’re male or female that’s a biological fact that your identification should reflect,” said MFI President Andrew Beckwith told CBS-Boston in 2019.

But Comerford is undeterred.

“I am confident that the bill will pass this session, be approved by the governor, and become a part of state law,” she said.

Making prison safer

Lewis, a co-sponsor of both bills, has personally filed several bills focusing on LGBTQ equality in coordination with Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro. Among them is “An Act to promote rehabilitation including guaranteed health, treatment, and safety for incarcerated LGBTQI+ people.”

The proposal calls for the creation of a coordinator at county correctional facilities to oversee programs and support services for LGBTQI inmates, and includes language that would attempt to reduce instances of gender-related hate crimes.

Facilities would give newly arrived inmates an opportunity to voluntarily disclose if they hold “homophobic or transphobic sentiments.” Under the bill, those who disclose said sentiments would then “not be housed in the same cell or housing unit as someone who identifies as LGBTQI+.”

“We know that homophobia and transphobia (exist) in all aspects of our society, including in prisons,” Lewis said. “We need to make an intentional effort to change policies that currently exist in the Department of Corrections, to make sure that LGBTQ folks are respected and can carry out their sentences safely.”

Lewis’s bill, along with other gender equality-related legislation and thousands of other bills, are currently collecting support and co-sponsorships from fellow lawmakers. No firm timeline exists yet for when they may be voted on or submitted to their respective committees for further review.

James Paleologopoulos writes for the Gazette from Boston University’s Statehouse Program.
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