Protection for transgender community in public spaces

College students have played a unique role in catalyzing social change in our country. In the 1960s, thousands of students participated in Freedom Rides, boarding buses across the country to travel to Southern states and register to vote African-American adults who faced institutionalized disenfranchisement. Student-driven protests against the Vietnam War shaped the 1968 presidential election. In the 1980s, direct actions on hundreds of college campuses helped dismantle the apartheid state that was South Africa. And yet, severe discrimination is currently occurring in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts while college students remain largely uninvolved in the effort to correct this grave injustice.

Transgender and gender non-conforming people lack explicit legal protection in areas of public accommodation here in our state. Public accommodations comprise a number of spaces, such as retail establishments, public parks, transportation centers, hospitals and other medical facilities, restaurants, movie theaters and more. Simply put, an area of public accommodation is any space that is open to and solicits the public. 

An historic legal victory earned by the LGBT community this summer does little to address the day-to-day concerns of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. In 27 states in our country, it is legal to fire someone based on sexual orientation a practice that is legal in 31 states on the basis of one’s gender identity or gender expression. Federal civil rights protections, extended to racial minorities, the disabled and many other groups, do not safeguard LGBT Americans, leaving millions of them who reside in more conservative states to live in fear. Fortunately, Massachusetts fully protects LGB Americans, but it has a much more damning history when it comes to protecting non-cisgender people.

Four years ago, the Massachusetts legislature passed legislation that updated Massachusetts’ civil rights law to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of protected classes in employment, public education, credit/lending and housing, and then-Governor Deval Patrick signed the bill into law. Following its implementation on July 1, 2012, it became no longer legal to refuse a rental application or deny a loan to a transgender or gender non-conforming person on the basis of that individual’s gender identity or expression. The media devoted much attention to the signing ceremony but neglected to cover in great depth the more sordid history behind the bill’s passage. Days before the legislature voted on the matter, Republicans and conservative Democrats convinced legislative leadership to strip public accommodations protections from the final bill, fearing that failing to do so would stoke a backlash in their districts. These lawmakers worried that their constituents would be angry if they were to have to comply with state law to treat transgender and gender non-conforming people the same way they were obligated to treat everyone else. 

Although data on the experiences and demographics of the transgender population are scarce, the stories of transgender and gender non-conforming Bay Staters and a 2014 study released by the Fenway Institute and the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC) reveal that discrimination against transgender people in places of public accommodation is widespread. The report, Project VOICE, surveyed 452 Massachusetts residents who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. According to the survey, 65 percent of respondents reported discrimination in one or more places of public accommodation in the past year. The settings where this discrimination was the most widespread were, in decreasing order, transportation centers, retail establishments, restaurants, public gatherings and health care facilities.

The negative effects of this discrimination are clear and measurable. According to the study, those who reported experiencing discriminatory treatment had an 84 percent increased risk of suffering from adverse physical symptoms, such as an upset stomach and headaches, and 99 percent were at an increased risk of experiencing negative emotional symptoms, such as feeling upset or sad, in the 30 days following the event during which the discrimination took place.

This sort of discrimination worsens the severe marginalization that the transgender community faces. Statistics provided by the National Center for Transgender Equality indicate that transgender people are among the poorest, unhealthiest and most harassed members of society. According to its 2011 report, “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” one of the most comprehensive efforts ever undertaken to study the experiences and demographics of the national transgender population, 15 percent of transgender Americans reported living in extreme poverty or having a household income of less than $10,000 per year, nearly four times that of the general population. An astonishing 41 percent of respondents reported attempting suicide, which compares to 1.6 percent of the general population. Less than one-third of respondents reported owning a home, compared to 67 percent of the general population. Those living in areas lacking explicit protection on the basis of gender identity in areas of public accommodation faced increased harassment, assault and violence.

These statistics are unconscionable. If the Commonwealth is to adequately address this issue, it must join the 18 other states and the nation’s capital that extend public accommodations protections to transgender and gender non-conforming people, and more college students need to join the effort. At MassEquality, the leading grassroots organization that is working to catalyze the passage of a bill that would do just that and where I have interned since early June, we engage supporters across the state to lobby their legislators to support this bill. I implore all members of the Tufts community to contact their legislators and ask them to support HB 1577 and SB 735; to get in touch with me to ask about ways to get involved in this effort; and to attend one or more of the weekly phone banks we hold every Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at a church adjacent to campus, the First Church Somerville UCC. It is past time that we ensure that all people, regardless of their gender identity or expression, can enjoy full protection under the law here in the state we call home.