Massachusetts House and Senate negotiators reached agreement Wednesday on a bill to expand anti-discrimination protections for the state's transgender residents and allow them to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identities.
The compromise announced by a six-member conference committee could receive final votes in both chambers on Thursday and be sent to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who is expected to sign it.
The panel worked to resolve several differences between versions of the bill that passed the Senate on a 33-4 vote and later the House by a 116-36 margin after debates that were at times emotional.
The transgender rights issue has stirred controversy elsewhere, notably in North Carolina where a law passed earlier this year requires people to use restrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates. The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday asked a federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction against the law, citing harassment of transgender people.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat who served on the conference committee, said it was important for Massachusetts to act in light of the national debate.
"I'm proud to see us standing on the right side of history," Chang-Diaz said.
The compromise includes a provision requiring the state's attorney general to develop guidelines for law enforcement on how to deal with people who make "improper" claims of gender identity. Such language had been included by the House, but not the Senate.
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Critics, including the Massachusetts Family Institute, argued that male sexual predators could claim gender identity as a way to gain access to women's bathrooms or locker rooms.
Baker, after being noncommittal for months, announced before the House vote that he would sign the bill if it reached his desk with the language pertaining to improper gender identity.
Another disagreement between the chambers was over the timing of the proposed law. The Senate wanted it to become effective immediately upon the governor's signature, while the House bill had an effective date of Jan. 1.
Rep. John Fernandes, a Milford Democrat, said the compromise bill would require the attorney general and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination to draft guidelines for implementing the law by Sept. 1, with all provisions taking effect by Oct. 1.
A 2011 Massachusetts law prohibits discrimination against transgender people in employment and housing, but efforts to expand the law to cover public accommodations had long stalled in the Legislature.
"Having protections against discrimination in those spaces are key to civil rights for (transgender) people," said Matt Wilder, a spokesman for the advocacy group Freedom Massachusetts.
While 17 other states have such laws in place, the organization said Massachusetts would be the first since 2014 to specifically prohibit discrimination in public places.
It's huge for the (transgender) community, obviously, but it's also huge for the state," said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "We're not lagging behind so many other states in providing equal protection."