Transgender rights bill advances in Massachusetts

A gender-neutral bathroom is seen at the University of California, Irvine in Irvine, California September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) - Legislation outlawing discrimination against transgender people advanced in the Democratic-led legislature in the liberal state of Massachusetts on Thursday at the same time conservative states have put in place laws restricting transgender rights.

The Massachusetts Senate approved the bill protecting transgender rights by a wide margin, sending it to the state House of Representatives, where it has strong support. Governor Charlie Baker, a socially liberal Republican, has not said whether he would sign the bill into law if it secures final legislative approval.

The measure would make Massachusetts the 18th U.S. state to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

The issue of transgender rights has become the latest front in America's culture wars. Some supporters of the Massachusetts measure described it as a rebuke to a law put in place in March in North Carolina prohibiting people from using bathrooms that do not correspond to the sex on their birth certificates.

"I am deeply proud of (the state Senate) for reaffirming our commitment to value and celebrate the diversity of humanity," Senate President Stan Rosenberg said following the 33-4 vote.

The Obama administration and North Carolina are battling in court over the legality of that state's law, which the White House contends violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Backers of that law say it will protect women and girls from sexual predators.

State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, the Massachusetts bill's sponsor, said the state has a long history of promoting civil rights, dating back to an 1865 law ensuring that black Americans would have equal access to public spaces and continuing through becoming the first U.S. state to legalize gay marriage in 2004.

"In Massachusetts, we are civil rights pioneers by nature," Chang-Diaz said.

Baker has said he will make a decision on whether to sign it when he sees the bill's final language.

"Governor Baker believes no one should be discriminated against based on gender identity," Baker spokeswoman Lizzy Guyton said in an email.

Kasey Suffredini, co-chair of Freedom Massachusetts, a group that backed the measure, praised the state Senate and called on Baker to sign the bill.

"They have raised the bar on what being a champion for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) equality looks like," Suffrendi said in a statement.

Opponents of the measure argue that allowing people to use bathrooms or locker rooms that do not correspond with their birth sex raises a risk of sexual assault.

"The 'bathroom bill' will force women to undress or shower in the presence of men," said Andrew Beckwith, president of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute. "This violates a fundamental right to personal privacy."

Supporters contend the strong negative reaction in the business community to North Carolina's law, with companies including PayPal Holdings and Deutsche Bank halting plans to expand there, would help the Massachusetts bill's prospects.

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Will Dunham)