Mass. GOP Ticket At Odds Over Trans Rights

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday April 20, 2010

The recent election of Republican Scott Brown to fill the vacancy left by the demise of famously liberal Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy notwithstanding, the state is still generally liberal on social issues. Republican challengers to Massachusetts Gov. Patrick Deval are uniformly pro-marriage equality and pro-choice, but they have found one GLBT issue that might energize a conservative base more interested in economic issues than social controversies: a bill that offers anti-discrimination protections to the state's transgendered residents.

Conservatives have launched attacks against such legislation in a number of states, characterizing it as a "bathroom bill" that would give rapists, child molesters, and peeping toms access to facilities reserved for women. Despite such rhetoric, cities in Montana and Florida have passed anti-discrimination ordinances relevant to transgendered residents. In Maine, the issue was exploited by groups seeking to scrap Maine's human rights legislation outright.

But when Republican gubernatorial contender Charles D. Baker attacked a bill that would prohibit anti-trans discrimination in Massachusetts, he was immediately accused of "flip-flopping" by GLBT equality advocates, reported The Boston Globe on April 20. Baker, the article noted, has played to the liberal sensibilities of Massachusetts voters by declaring his support for marriage equality and taking Richard Tisei, an openly gay candidate, as a running mate.

Though conservative voters have shown more interest lately in substantive issues such as the economy, anti-gay groups have pushed the so-called "bathroom argument" as a new socially conservative touchstone, warning of the perils and perversions of men using the women's restroom--even if those men identify as women.

Although many people mistakenly believe that transgendered individuals are simply gays or lesbians who dress and live as members of the opposite sex, the issue is more complex--and distinct from sexual orientation: transgendered people frequently insist from extremely early ages that they are actually members of the opposite gender, despite their physical anatomy. Though the phenomenon is rare, transgendered people are so deeply convinced of their true sexual identity that some say that they have only experienced a sense of comfort and belonging in their own bodies after having undergone sex reassignment surgery.

Others are content to dress and live as members of the gender to which they belong, without undergoing the surgery and hormone treatments they would need to transition; the use of restroom facilities that match their gender identity is part of what trans people see as the rights that are denied them. The political debate, such as it is, focuses on people who are anatomically male, but identify as female. (Those who attack trans-inclusive anti-discrimination bills do not seem to identify anatomical females using men's rooms as a social menace.)

The Globe reported that after social conservatives made an issue of Tisei's support for the anti-discrimination bill, Baker was hasty to distance himself from it, referring to the measure as "the bathroom bill" and issuing a leaflet that said he would veto such a bill were he governor. But GLBT equality advocates noted that the company he headed until recently, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, mandates equal protections for all its current and prospective employees--including transgendered individuals.

"It appears Charlie Baker was for transgender civil rights before he was against them," MassEquality's DeeDee Edmondson said in a statement. "Given Harvard Pilgrim Health Care's history of protecting employees from discrimination based on gender identity, which happened under Charlie Baker's watch, we were surprised to hear of his opposition to the Transgender Civil Rights Bill."

"Saturday's comments stand, and that's Charlie's position on the issue," responded a Baker spokesperson, Rick Gorka.

"While I oppose discrimination of any kind, the sponsors of this bill wrote it with a sledgehammer approach that could radically change the social landscape in the interest of protecting a small interest group," stated another candidate, The article noted that another candidate, State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill. "That is wrong." Added Cahill, "My opponent Charlie Baker claims he opposes the bill, but when he had to pick a running mate, he picked Richard Tisei, one of the lead cosponsors of the bill."

The current governor of Massachusetts, Patrick Deval, supports the bill, the article said.

The rhetoric about so-called "bathroom bills" may be short on nuance, but it gives Republicans politicians something with which to woo conservative voters who are still concerned about issues such as sexual minorities. In Massachusetts, the state that first legalized marriage equality six years ago, similar issues--such as marriage equality itself--may still carry a charge, but politicians prefer to skirt around it; Scott Brown attempted to help then-Gov. Mitt Romney derail marriage equality in the state before it could take effect, but today he dismisses the issue by saying that it has been "settled" in Massachusetts. And in an earlier Globe story, from Jan. 11 of this year, Baker attempted to deflect inquiries about GLBT equality by hammering on a message of fiscal responsibility and lower taxes.

Indeed, though Tisei's positions have come under attack, his sexuality has largely been ignored--at least on the surface; but a Dec. 14, 2009 story in New England GLBT publication Bay Windows noted that for some Republicans in the Bay State, the issue of sexuality is still very much alive. The article quoted one blogger, who observed that, "The same people vilifying Tisei had no problem whatsoever of enthusiastically supporting candidates with essentially the same voting record--pro-choice, pragmatic conservatism on fiscal issues, save for one issue. Three guesses what the issue in question is." That blogger and others posting comments to website seemed to be dancing around the issue but making it plain that for some, Tisei's sexuality was the main sticking point.

"You're always going to have your zealots; they're never going to be happy, no matter what, as long as you include 'gay' in 'Republican' or as long as you include 'gay' in any sentence," Michael Motzkin, who previously led the Massachusetts Log Cabin Republicans, told Bay Windows.

And while for many the issue of marriage equality may be "settled" in Massachusetts, others continue to hope that voters there can eventually be persuaded to overturn family parity for gays and lesbians. The so-called "bathroom bill" might prove to be one means to gain traction for anti-GLBT initiatives to come. Said Kris Mineau, leader of the anti-gay Massachusetts Family Institute and opponent of marriage equality, "We're very pleased" about Baker's condemnation of the trans-equality bill, the Globe reported in the April 20 story. "I know that Mr. Baker is very concerned about family values," added Mineau. "He has a lovely family and he's concerned about the environment his children are being raised in, and he basically feels the bill goes too far."

Mineau went on, "Our overall concern is we want to ensure the safety, privacy and modesty of all citizens, and particularly among our most vulnerable is children. And it certainly allayed a lot of concerns when they took that position on the Baker campaign." Added Mineau, "We had not heard Mr. Baker take a formal position and it's obvious he has taken a positive public position."

GLBT equality advocates, however, expressed alarm. "This is his first foray into the tough and heated world of politics in the Republican Party," said the co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, Arline Isaacson, "and at the first brush fire he sacrificed something important at the altar of political expediency." Added Isaacson, "The bottom line is you can't be halfway for equality. You're either for it or against it."

The measure's lead sponsor, Carl Sciortino, called the so-called "bathroom bill" rhetoric "a scare tactic, pure and simple," adding, "It's catering to the right wing of the Republican Party at the expense of the civil rights of all citizens. But we're going to continue to move forward."

But Baker sought to put a more neutral spin on the issue at a press conference, saying, "I think a guy who supports gay marriage and is pro-choice, and has been pretty clear on those, and picked a gay fella as his running mate, is pretty much not pandering too much of anybody."

Tisei, who was also present, did not comment.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.