Massachusetts receives ‘solidifying equality’ rating on LGBT laws

Human Rights Headquarters

The state of Massachusetts received a second-tier rating of “solidifying equality” in the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) first annual State Equality Index (SEI), a state-by-state critique of legislation affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

States in the “solidifying equality” category have successfully implemented marriage equality and basic nondiscrimination protections, but may also contain laws restricting LGBT rights or providing incomplete protection, according to the SEI report, which was released on Jan. 23.

According to Alison Gill, senior legislative council for HRC and author of the SEI, she and her team evaluated states by looking at statewide laws and policies in six different areas: relationship recognition, parenting laws, nondiscrimination laws, hate crime laws, youth laws and health and safety.

She explained that they separated states into four different categories based on the presence of positive and negative laws that affect LGBT equality.

According to Gill, SEI scorecards were created based on publicly available research, as well as data contributed by state advocates and partners such as the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition and MassEquality.

“Overall, Massachusetts did very well,” she said. “It has substantial laws and policies concerning LGBT protections in areas like relationship recognition. It has very strong parenting laws, so that LGBT people can adopt and form families.”

Gill opined that there are several areas in which the state still needs to improve. While Massachusetts has basic nondiscrimination laws, she said, there is a significant gap of legislation in place with regard to transgender people in public accommodations.

According to Gill, there has been a transgender public accommodation protection bill in momentum since 2012 to offer protections based on gender identity and expression in public accommodations.

“The HRC strongly supports this bill and hopes it reached fruition this year,” she said.

Gill also noted that while hate crime and anti-bullying laws are strong in Massachusetts, there are additional gaps related to youth, health and safety. However, she explained, a bill was introduced in the past year to protect young people from conversion therapy.

“We’re expecting that to move forward and be introduced, and we’ll also support that bill,” she said. “There needs to be public support for these two measures to protect trans people in public accommodations and also to protect young people from conversion therapy, which we know is incredibly harmful and damaging.”

Other areas Gill noted as needing improvement are LGBT youth homelessness and nondiscrimination protections in health care policies.

“Several states have [nondiscrimination protections], so that would be a way that Massachusetts could move forward with regard to protecting LGBT people in health care,” she said.

She explained that the state has progressed in banning providers from having insurance exclusions for trans-health care and in creating trans-inclusive health benefits for state employees. However, she said, exceptions exist for transgender people in the Massachusetts state Medicaid program.

Michelle Bowdler, senior director of Health and Wellness Service, noted that this is an important consideration for students when choosing health care plans after their time at Tufts.

“We have purchased a health insurance plan at Tufts that has very extensive benefits for transgender students,” she said. “But it’s not a requirement of the health exchanges at this point … That’s important because some people may be thinking about transitioning in college, but they may not be sure that they want to take all the steps that are available in the current health insurance plan, and so knowing that these options are available to them beyond college is significant.”

Bowdler said she has experienced the effects of changes in Massachusetts’s legislation first-hand, and reflected back to when the key issue at hand was whether or not gay and lesbian couples could become foster parents. She commends the progress of the state throughout the years.

“When Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to allow gay marriage, it was a time of great pride and excitement for our state,” Bowdler said. “I don’t think the state does everything right, but I do think they do a lot to make a lot of positive changes.”

She mentioned that seeing the HRC report served as a good reminder for the issues with which people should familiarize themselves and keep on their radars. Likewise, Gill said she believes that students are very important in bringing about such progress by staying informed.

“College students can play an important role in supporting [legislation] by contacting their lawmakers and letting them know that they are supportive, and also when there’s hearings on a bill or other opportunities to become involved, reaching out and testifying or participating in hearings,” she said.