The mood at the private State House office gathering on November 23, 2011 was a celebratory one - but hanging in the air was a tinge of something sharper and more bittersweet; a barely detectable hint of frustration.
As Governor Deval Patrick signed the Transgender Equal Rights Act into law, the crowd of government officials and LGBT activists surrounding him broke into applause.
“I sign this bill as a matter of conscience, Patrick said to the crowd of beaming faces and shuttering cameras. "No individual should face discrimination because of who they are."
Only a day after the bill had passed 95-58 in the State House of Representatives, Massachusetts was signed into being the 16th state in the nation to protect its transgender citizens against hate crimes and discrimination in education, employment, housing, and lending. But despite this landmark legislative victory, the bill's sponsors, trans-rights activists, and the governor himself seemed wary of celebrating too early.
"There is unfinished business in the department of doing right here in the Commonwealth," Patrick later said.
The "business" in question was a vital portion of the bill which had been hastily stripped away in the final moments before going to a vote the day before. The now-missing portion would have protected transgender people against discrimination in areas of public accommodations, including restaurants, hotels, trains - and, most importantly, sex-segregated facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms.
“Its passage is historic and we are thrilled with the political support that made passage of this act possible," said Kara Suffredini, then-executive director of MassEquality, an LGBT rights organization which lobbied heavily in support of the bill. "Tomorrow we continue our advocacy and education about the need for the vital public accommodations protections that are missing."
That afternoon, as an estimated 33,000 transgender citizens and their loved ones gathered to celebrate throughout Massachusetts, LGBTQ activists and supporters were returning to their offices to develop a strategy for winning back what had almost been theirs.
And thus, three years later, Bill H.1577: "An Act Relative to Gender Identity and Nondiscrimination" was born.
The original bill, "An Act Relative to Gender Identity," went into effect July 1, 2012, sandwiched between a law for collective bargaining and another establishing financial officers in Malden, Massachusetts.
For all of the controversy it inspired, the 2011 bill was quite short, consisting of nine brief sections and totaling fewer than 500 words. The most substantial information was in its first section, which defined "gender identity" as anyone's "gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person's physiology or assigned sex at birth." According to the bill, this gender-related identity may be shown through a citizen's medical history, care or treatment related to their gender identity, or "consistent and uniform assertion of the gender-related identity."
The remaining sections of the bill list the various areas in which "gender identity" is to be amended or added to the state's general laws, particularly in areas that mention "sex" or "sexual orientation."
This meant that for the first time in state history, gender identity was protected the same way as race, religion, sex, age, and marital status. No longer could a transgender citizen be discriminated against in employment, housing, credit and lending, or education based on their gender identity.
This marked an important victory - except for one noticeably absent factor: unlike virtually all of the state's other protected groups, transgender citizens are not protected in areas of public accommodations.
In Massachusetts, a public accommodation is any place providing goods and services to the public. The list of these accommodations seems endless, including hotels, hospitals, shopping malls, movie theaters, taxi cabs, trains and buses, and coffee shops. The ones most frequently mentioned by the bill's detractors, however, are sex-segregated facilities, including public restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms.
As the law stands, transgender people may be (and are) denied health care, refused service at restaurants, or denied entry at homeless shelters because of their gender identity. According to 2014 state-wide survey of transgender and gender non-conforming adults, 65 percent of participants reported being discriminated against in at least one public accommodation within the past year.
Bill H.1577, "An Act Relative to Gender Identity and Nondiscrimination," seeks to remedy this.
The bill, sponsored by Democratic Representatives Byron Rushing and and Denise Provost, was introduced to the House on January 20, 2015 - and it wasn't received quietly. Opponents, many of whom fought against the original bill, argue that it would infringe upon people's right to privacy and religious freedom. Meanwhile, activists argue that protection in public accommodations is a basic human right.
And caught within the gray area of measured acceptance is the state's transgender population, accustomed to having their very identity recognized in some areas and frowned upon - or forbidden - in others.
Bill H.1577 is slated to go to a vote this summer, and warriors on either side of the issue are intensifying their lobbying and outreach efforts. Both sides believe they have the support and stamina to win and both sides believe they have the data to back them up.
And, as evidenced by the four characters below, neither side has plans to concede defeat.
Carly Burton has spent over a decade as a professional lobbyist, advocating for LGBTQ rights in the state of Massachusetts. Her work as the co-interim director of MassEquality, a state-wide advocacy group working to end LGBTQ discrimination, was instrumental in getting same-sex marriage passed in 2004 and the transgender equal rights law in 2011.
For the past three years, her lobbying efforts have focused on getting lawmakers to protect transgender citizens in public accommodations - and there hasn't been much time to relax.
In fact, when I meet Carly Burton at the small MassEquality offices, she needs another ten minutes before she can stop working. Every available wall and table surface is covered with photos of gay-rights rallies, award plaques, and pamphlets. The office is small, save for its largest room, which is filled with desks, landline telephones, and old banners that lean against the walls as if a crowd of volunteers had just left for the day.
“Sorry about that,” Carly says as she brushes inside a smaller office overlooking the Financial District. She's dressed casually, in a simple gray suit and a low-hanging ponytail. But her face is serious as she explains the intricacies and difficulties of tackling discrimination in Massachusetts - especially when it comes to the transgender equal rights law.
"There was concern that this bill would somehow provide a defense for someone who wanted to go into a bathroom and commit a crime, and that is a huge misconception that does not exist now that the law has passed at all, nor did it exist before the law passed," Burton says. "There was a misconception that generally girls would be unsafe in restrooms. I think that what we tried to educate people about is that actually it’s trans people who can be very unsafe in restrooms."
According to a 2013 study by the Williams Institute, 70 percent of transgender or gender non-conforming residents in the Washington, D.C. area had experienced some sort of negative reaction when using a bathroom. 68 percent reported being told they were in the wrong bathroom, being verbally threatened, or given strange looks. 9 percent reported actual physical assaults, including being forcibly removed from the bathroom, slapped, or, in one respondent's case, sexually assaulted.
Burton and MassEquality are working to ensure this doesn't continue occurring in Massachusetts as well.
"A lot of our work is on educating people around the fact that everybody has a gender identity, and for some people it may match their birth sex and for others it may not," Burton says. “The transgender community is the only protected class that is not protected in public accommodations which is a real inconsistency in the law that needs to be fixed. That’s why we’re working on getting that remedied in the State House.”
This has meant tackling the grueling process of convincing lawmakers to add on to the vote they may (or may not) have voted on in 2011. But a larger part of their mission, Burton says, has been educating the general public on transgender rights.
"Where the change really happens is on the street when you’re having direct conversations, one on one, with people who are different than you,” Burton says. "And so a lot of our work educated people around that and the fact that everybody has a gender identity and for some people it may match the birth sex and for others it may not."
According to Burton, they have made enormous strides in educating the public - particularly since transgender rights have increasingly entered mainstream media, with transgender actors such as Laverne Cox gracing the cover of Time Magazine and the arrival of Amazon's hit show, "Transparent."
"Seeing people who are like you reflected in the media can be very powerful for a young person who is just coming out or is struggling with their gender identity," Burton explains. "To see someone who is an adult, doing well, successful, that can be really powerful and helpful in providing hope for that young person."
Despite this broadening support, MassEquality's lobbyists have found that the bill's most vocal opponents (many of whom are advocates of "traditional family values") remain unconvinced. This could all change, Burton says, if they were willing to be a part of the conversation and education process.
“I think that if you don’t know someone who is trans, then it is easier to dehumanize or vilify that person,” Burton says. “That’s been really helpful to show who transgender people are, that this is one part of a person’s identity that is composed of a whole host of other parts, and that it’s important that transgender folks are welcomed and protected in all areas of society.”
Andrew Beckwith sits confidently in front of a polished wooden desk, his black suit-jacket pristine and his hair cut into a neat, marine crew cut. Flanking him is a gold-fringed American flag and the logo of the Massachusetts Family Institute, the conservative lobbying organization of which he is the president.
In a society that is shifting more towards accepting differences of gender and sexuality, Beckwith is a beacon of stability and traditional thought. The Institute, with Beckwith at the helm, has been one of the state's most powerful and vocal opponents of LGBTQ rights and supporters of "traditional family values."
“What we do is engage in research, education, and advocacy on public policy issues in order to strengthen the family and family values here in the Commonwealth," Beckwith says in a well-rehearsed tone. "And the three main pillars of family values that we advocate for are the dignity of marriage, the sanctity of life, and increasing religious liberty.”
The Institute's most crushing defeat to date was the passage of the state's same sex marriage law. Now, over a decade later, the Institute has devoted itself to another issue; ensuring public accommodations remain unprotected areas for transgender citizens.
Their efforts don't stop at preventing it, either. The Institute is helping propose and support an alternate bill that Beckwith calls a "common sense approach," which would require all citizens to use sex-segregated public accommodations (i.e. bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms) that align with their anatomical sex.
In simplest terms, those with male genitalia must use the men’s sex segregated facilities, and vice versa for female genitalia. Or in Beckwith’s words, “it’s not based on somebody’s inner feelings or identification, but on actual biology.”
This, he explains, would help curb both infringements on people's right to privacy and religious freedom.
“God created us male and female, so to deny that fundamental truth has a religious element,” Beckwith says.
This was of concern when he says a female medical practitioner came to him for advice on an anatomically female patient who asked to be referred to as a man. The woman was conflicted, as she did not want to be faced with a discrimination lawsuit, but she also could not deny her fundamental Christian beliefs that males are inherently different from females.
The right to privacy also gets thrown into the fray in what Beckwith calls the “bathroom” portion of the bill, which would allow transgender people to use the bathroom or locker room they identity with. This, he says, could be especially problematic in public schools, where treatment of transgender students is currently handled on on a case-by-case basis.
“Let’s say you’ve got a 17-year-old senior male who wants to use the women’s restroom because he identifies as female. He’s going to be sharing the same bathroom, perhaps the same locker room, as a 13-year-old freshman girl,” Beckwith says, raising his eyebrows pointedly. “That’s one of the reasons why the current bill needs clarification and why we support the bill that would clarify restricting access based on physical anatomy.”
Instead of establishing protections in areas of public accommodations, Beckwith believes more attention should be paid to treating people who identify as transgender.
This is because he believes "transgenderism" is a mental disorder.
“For someone who suffers from gender identity disorder, [let's] make you feel comfortable in your own skin by working through these problems, rather than recommending really invasive surgery and powerful hormones,” Beckwith says. “Especially with kids. That’s what’s really sad and troubling, to see these kids are being prescribed these drugs before puberty.”
Also recommended by the Beckwith is "reparative therapy," a form of treatment that has been banned in states like California and New Jersey, that is meant to "cure" a gay or gender non-conforming person. An example Beckwith used was transgender woman Michelle Kosilek (born Robert Kosilek), who is serving life in prison for strangling her wife to death in 1990.
"When Robert was a young boy, by his own testimony, he was horribly, horribly abused, sexually and otherwise, and he sees his own body as a reminder of the abuse that he suffered and so wants to change his body," Beckwith explains. "There’s no question and no dispute in the case that he has some severe mental, psychological issues, and yet the treatment that was recommended by some doctors was again to amputate healthy organs in order to appease a troubled mind. We would just advocate addressing the root of the problem, which is the troubled mental issue, rather than harm an otherwise healthy body.”
Rachel Kahn doesn’t work at the State House. She isn’t influencing law makers or pitching legislation. She doesn’t organize rallies or petitions.
She's just here to help, and to listen.
Kahn is youth therapist at Sidney Borum Jr. Health Center, a program of Fenway Health that serves clients from ages 12 to 29. There, she focuses on treating LGBTQ youth who might not feel comfortable finding healthcare elsewhere.
“We serve a lot of homeless youth, youth with street involvement, and young adults who might not have another safe and non-judgmental place to access their healthcare,” Kahn says from her office overlooking Boston’s Chinatown. Dressed in a polka-dotted dress, a cheery yellow sweater and bold red lipstick, she gives the impression of being bubbly and light. But her tone when discussing the difficulties teenagers face – particularly among the LGBTQ community - becomes impassioned and serious.
The biggest misconception Kahn faces when people discuss mental health in gay and trans youth is believing their issues stem from their sexual or gender identity.
"Approximately 78 percent of transgender youth are harassed at some point between kindergarten and 12th grade, 35 percent of trans youth have been assaulted at school, and 15 percent of trans youth have dropped out because they didn’t feel safe being who they are in schools," Kahn explains. "Obviously, everyone’s mental health is better when they feel safe and people are treating them with respect, so a huge thing for a lot of the of the youth we work with is knowing that they’re going to a place where they’ll feel safe and acknowledged for who they are.”
Though society is gradually becoming more accepting of gender non-conforming people, especially among teenagers, LGBTQ youths are still developing mental health issues at a far higher rate than their cisgender or straight peers.
"It's really striking and upsetting to know is that one third of trans youth have attempted suicide, and 45 percent of trans youth have thought about ending their own lives," Kahn says, shaking her head. "Incidents of substance abuse among LGBTQ youth are dramatically higher, incidents of youth homelessness are dramatically higher, and all of those things are sort of linked together.”
These issues are not caused (as some believe) by their gender identity or sexual orientation, but by the challenges they face in their daily lives. For a transgender teenager, something as simple as using the restroom can become a source of daily humiliation or ridicule.
"[They're] making them choose between one of the binary bathrooms, so a girls room or a boys room, or embarrassing them by saying “you can only use the bathroom in the gym teacher’s office or the principal’s office,” Kahn says.
To remedy this, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sent a memo to every public school in the state with guidelines for "creating a safe and supportive school environment," specifically for transgender teens.
Included in the guidelines were clear definitions of "gender expression," "gender identity," and "transgender" (which are often conflated), recommendations to use the gender pronouns a student identifies with, and - most controversially - a request that students be allowed to use the restrooms or locker rooms that align with their gender identity.
Though obeying the guidelines is not mandatory under the current law, Kahn says it provided many educators with the resources and information they needed to better serve their transgender students.
“I think that schools, since the bill has been passed, are a lot more capable and comfortable with being able to create a safe environment for trans youth in their school," Kahn says. "The primary [thing] is the comfort and the needs of that trans student who is taking a really big risk in coming out and being who they are in a school environment.”
Feeling safe and accepted by their peers and teachers is a way to help LGBTQ youth avoid depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, and being allowed to use public accommodations (such as restrooms) according to their gender identity is a step in the right direction.
So when someone tells Kahn they're against the new bill because of their "family values," she finds herself dumbfounded.
"I continue to not understand how telling a child or telling anyone that who they are is wrong, can be a family value," Kahn says with a tone of exasperation. "I don’t understand how anything that can lead to children being harassed and threatened and dropping out of school and feeling isolated and killing themselves and getting involved with substance abuse and having a higher rate of homelessness – I don’t know how you can call that a family value."
The suggestion of "reperative therapy" is met by Kahn with the same level of confusion.
"You can’t treat someone out of having brown eyes. You can’t treat someone out of being left-handed. You can’t treat someone out of fundamentally who they are," she states matter-of-factly. "There’s obviously no part of a person being who they are that’s a disorder.”
Casey's room is a mess. But then again, it's a college freshman's dorm room.
His desk is cluttered with half-finished art projects and comic books, a ceramic mold of his hand ["My uncle made it," he explains], and a men's Degree deodorant stick. Alongside his windowsill is a bulky, baby-blue vintage radio he found at a yard sale on Martha's Vineyard that no longer works, and on top of it, a tiny flowerpot holding a remarkably still-living plant.
"I'm sorry about the mess," he says, a bit embarrassed, as he drags his desk chair out from the clutter. As the chair moves, one of its legs nudges his shoe collection. It's a typical collection of boots and sandals for any 19-year-old boy, except for the single pair of nude, patent leather high heels.
Casey, a first-year film major from Arlington, Massachusetts, came out to himself as transgender when he was 14. A late bloomer, he says.
"I guess it’s kind of different from a lot of people who have known since they were little that they knew they wanted to be a boy or they wanted to be a girl," Casey says. "I was just kind of a kid.”
When he eventually did come out to his parents, he was met with a mixture of sadness and anger. His father, he says, has "certain ideas about masculinity" that Casey didn't show. His mother, however, was just upset that he had kept such an important secret from them for so long.
"My mom is much more accepting, openly, than my dad is at this point," Casey explains, shrugging his shoulders a bit sadly. "I don’t think either of them are going to disown me or kick me out - like, ever - but I still think there’s a bit of discomfort just from not knowing.”
It was partly this reaction from his parents that has kept Casey from coming out publicly as transgender. Even his closest friends at college only found out by accident, having stumbled upon his Tumblr profile (where he expresses himself using male pronouns).
"I find it very uncomfortable to come out to people, just because you don’t know what their reaction will be," Casey said, after saying he was happy to have avoided the process with his friends. "Sometimes I’m concerned walking around if people know."
According to Casey, he is able to avoid a lot of the discrimination many of his transgender peers face because he looks more like a "butch lady" than a transgender man. But efforts to achieve a more masculine appearance, including wearing a chest binder and men's clothing, have sometimes not been enough.
This, he explains, has been one of of the hardest struggles when trying to express himself as a male, particularly in daily activities as mundane as using the restroom.
“I’m actually terrified of using the men’s room," Casey says, laughing nervously. "I think it’s just the fear that I will be rejected. It’s really intimidating."
He still carries the vivid memory of the only time he has tried to use a men's restroom. It was at a Chili's restaurant. When he entered, a man inside promptly said "this is the men's room." Knowing he had been mistaken for a woman, Casey walked out.
When he recalls this memory, he looks down and twists a rubber band around his fingers, hiding his face.
"I was just kind of feeling… it feels normal to not be able to do that. I think when you’re trans you just kind of have to police yourself so you feel safe," he says to his feet.
This experience, he says, is magnified for transgender teenagers who are facing not only the obstacles of denied public accommodations, but also the struggles of growing up.
"Being a teenager is shitty, and I think if you’re queer, and especially if you’re trans, you have that added stress," Casey says. "Basically it’s like chronic stress about your identity and people being angry at you, or you're facing actual repercussions for just being you and wanting to be comfortable in your identity. It sucks."
But the future for the transgender community, he says, is looking much brighter - particularly if the public accommodations bill is allowed to pass this summer.
"Hopefully, as it becomes more normalized, people will be more comfortable talking about it," says Casey. He adds that he hopes to one day create a TV show with real, "fleshed-out" trans characters, instead of the damaging stereotypes that are sometimes used.
Until then, he will be working towards getting his bachelor's degree and navigating the world as a slowly coming-out trans man - high heels and all.
"When I first came out I felt like I had to be more traditionally masculine, and then I decided to wear what I like," he said, gesturing toward his Superman t-shirt. "I think there's an idea that clothes make the gender, but it's just how you identify. So I've been more comfortable just wearing what I want to wear."
As to how often the high heels make it into his outfit?
"Not too often," he replies, laughing. "They hurt my feet."