By Kyle Cheney
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, NOV. 15, 2011…..Transgender men and women in Massachusetts would be protected in the state’s anti-discrimination laws under a bill endorsed by the House Tuesday that backers described as a victory for the civil rights of a small but embattled community.
“What I want you to think about before you make this vote is there’s this small, discreet group of individuals that this will literally change their lives,” said Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea) minutes before his colleagues voted 95-58 in support of the bill.
“This will give them the faith and the confidence to be comfortable with who they are as individuals, to seek employment if they are skilled and have the ability to apply for a job. If they’re in a housing situation, they cannot be denied shelter because of who they are. And if they are singled out because of who they are and physical harm is brought to them, they should be given the protections in our hate crimes law,” O’Flaherty continued.
The bill overcame the objections of 32 of the House’s 33 Republicans and 26 Democrats, some of whom argued that they feared the bill would lead to a deluge of litigation that could swamp small businesses.
“The lack of clarity is going to create havoc for business owners and individuals who are trying to earn a living and comply with the law,” said Sheila Harrington (R-Groton).
The bill passed the same day that a band of House Republican freshmen stood together to decry the bill as a special interest giveaway that was distracting from legislative efforts to create jobs.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where supporters say they expect a vote Wednesday before lawmakers embark on a seven-week recess that begins at the end of the day. Gov. Deval Patrick said Tuesday he would support the legislation if it reaches his desk.
“We have hate crimes on the books today. In the case of transgender people it doesn’t go far enough, and I think it’s important to make sure they do go far enough,” Patrick told reporters before the House debate.
Opponents of the bill in the House sought to delay its passage by filing more than 40 amendments Tuesday evening, most of which were aimed at studying various aspects of the legislation. Ultimately, all but one of those amendments was withdrawn, in part because of an unusual maneuver by House leaders to limit debate on the bill to one hour.
Most of that hour was consumed by remarks from O’Flaherty and Rep. Carl Sciortino (D-Medford), who recounted the violent deaths of transgender residents in Massachusetts over the years and pointed out transgender residents and family members seated in the House gallery.
“These individuals are here with us tonight, risking themselves and their families to tell their stories for our learning and our understanding,” he said.
Rep. Daniel Winslow (R-Norfolk), the only House Republican to support the bill, needled Democrats for limiting debate on the issue, taking to Twitter to say it was regrettable that “the majority has limited debate.” His tweet prompted a reply from Rep. Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg), who replied, “Could we expect powerful speeches on the 40+ studies filed by the minority? Should we study or act?”
Criticism of the move to restrict debate – which was offered by Rep. David Linsky (D-Natick) and passed 94-56 – also came from Democrats. Rep. Christopher Fallon (D-Malden) lambasted colleagues who voted to limit debate to an hour, saying it brings “shame on us all.”
“We marginalize our importance to our constituency. We marginalize the importance of a bill like this when we try to limit, when we try to suspend, when we try to restrict debate,” Fallon boomed from his seat in the back of the chamber, winning applause from Republicans on hand. “To accept the motion from the gentleman from Natick is to bring shame on us all, on every single one of us. Just mail it in if you support this motion to suspend debate on a civil rights bill within an hour or with two hours. Bring shame on us, bring shame on yourself. I hope this motion is not allowed.”
The move to limit debate also came after the House voted 115-37 to bypass the Ways and Means Committee’s review of the bill. The Ways and Means Committee is charged with analyzing legislation that could have fiscal ramifications.
The lone amendment debated was offered by Rep. Paul Frost (R-Auburn), who sought to strip most of the provisions out of the bill and limit it only to provisions that would add penalties transgender residents to a list of classes protected from hate crimes. The amendment failed 59-93.