Depending on the arguments heard yesterday at the State House, a bill to ban transgender discrimination is either the next leap for civil rights in Massachusetts or a way for predators to gain access to bathrooms and locker rooms used by the opposite sex.
“We know that our Commonwealth is stronger when every person can live and work free of harassment and threats,’’ Attorney General Martha Coakley testified before the joint Judiciary Committee. “The unfairness is clear, but the remedy has not been clear.’’
Under bills filed in the House and Senate, Massachusetts would join 15 other states, including every other New England state except New Hampshire, in outlawing transgender discrimination in employment, housing, education, credit, and access to public accommodations. The bills also would add offenses involving gender identity and expression to the state’s list of hate crimes.
In emotional testimony before hundreds of spectators in Gardner Auditorium, Representative Carl Sciortino of Medford, a Democrat and cosponsor of the House bill, read the names of several transgender individuals who had been murdered in Massachusetts since the late 1970s.
The list included Rita Hester, who died in Boston of multiple stab wounds in 1998, and Lisa Daniels, who died in Dorchester in 2005 when she was shot 17 times below the waist.
“What we are asking here today is so very, very simple,’’ Senator Susan Fargo, Democrat of Lincoln, told the committee, which will vote on whether to recommend the bill for approval. “It extends civil rights protection to a group that has been forgotten.’’
Opponents, however, lambasted the bill as vaguely worded and an invitation for predators who could use legal protections for gender identity and expression to enter bathrooms and other private areas that otherwise would be off-limits.
“I think that this bill would compromise the basic standards of safety and privacy that women and children deserve and expect in society,’’ Representative Marc Lombardo, a freshman Republican legislator from Billerica, said after his testimony. “As a father, I do not want to see men in the ladies room with my daughter.’’
The bill, he said, “may be well-intentioned, but it would change so many elementary items of the way we live our day-to-day life.’’
Lombardo was joined by Representative James Lyons, a Republican from Andover, who characterized the proposal as an assault on the working class.
“Is there not some moment when we say to ourselves in the Legislature of the Commonwealth, what are we doing?’’ Lyons asked the committee. “Now, the working families of our Commonwealth must worry about the moral environment.’’
Robert Joyce, a Newton lawyer, predicted the bill would force business owners and others to “determine the impossible’’ when dealing with transgender people and expose them to unnecessary litigation. The bill, he said, “is nothing but a legal ambiguity.’’
Joyce said that additional protections are not needed for transgender individuals in the state. “What I’m saying here is that it ain’t broke in Massachusetts,’’ Joyce told the committee. “The law protects people with gender-identity concerns.’’
To Coakley, critics of the bill have stoked “unreasonable fears’’ and “grossly mischaracterize what this bill does.’’
Transgender witnesses yesterday spoke of a harrowing, lengthy process to reorient themselves to a new identity and to the obstacles they encounter.
“Most of us work really hard to be invisible in society,’’ said Gunner Scott, director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, who now has a male identity. “Unfortunately, most of us have no choice but to come out of the closet.’’