A bill that would bar discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations and allow them to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with the gender they identify with won overwhelming approval in the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts House on Wednesday.
Its passage comes a day after Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said he would sign the House version, which includes language that targets false claims of gender identity, bill if it reaches his desk. The bill must now be reconciled with a Senate version, which does not include that language.
The 116-36 House vote, following several hours of debate on the highly charged issue, was greeted with loud and sustained applause from supporters who had filled the House gallery to capacity.
"Our state is one step closer to allowing me, a 14-year-old transgender girl, to be able to live my life the way I want to live my life and be free and not have to worry about being discriminated (against) in public," said Nicole Talbot, an eighth-grader from Grafton, after watching the debate with her mother.
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Opponents, who gathered outside the House chamber as the debate unfolded, briefly directed chants of "shame on you" toward lawmakers after the vote.
A 2011 state law prohibits discrimination in employment and housing but does not extend to public accommodations such as restaurants or shopping malls.
Critics of the bill have suggested that sexual predators could make false claims to gain access to women's restrooms or locker rooms.
Rep. John Fernandes, a Milford Democrat who presided over hearings on the bill, urged colleagues to put aside fear and emotion and focus on the facts. He said discrimination should not be allowed anywhere.
"It's wrong in bathrooms and it's wrong in locker rooms and it's wrong in business settings," Fernandes said.
After months of being publicly non-committal on the bill, Baker agreed Tuesday to sign the House version of the bill, which assesses penalties for people who make false claims of gender identity.
"This bill would take away the rights for more than 99 percent of the population - the basic right to privacy in bathrooms and locker rooms," said Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican who opposed the legislation. "The rights of our children to feel safe in the bathroom, the rights of teenage girls to not have to shower in front of teenage boys."
Republicans, who are heavily outnumbered by Democrats in the House, proposed a series of unsuccessful amendments, including one that would have required registered sex offenders to use bathrooms corresponding with their anatomical gender.
"Let's face it, there are creeps out there," said Taunton Republican Shaunna O'Connell in support of the sex offender amendment. But Salem Democrat Paul Tucker, a former police chief, said the bill already contained safeguards and accused opponents of "fear-mongering."
One Republican, Rep. Sheila Harrington of Groton, said she had long opposed the bill but changed her mind after hearing tearful stories from transgender people and parents who told of how their children had been tormented and ridiculed.
Harrington, a Roman Catholic, also dismissed objections to the bill on religious grounds.
"People will say they can't support this because of their faith," she said. "I support this bill fully because of my faith."
At mid-afternoon about 50 opponents of the bill gathered in the governor's outer office requesting a meeting with Baker, but were told by an aide he was not in the building.
"We're hoping the governor will listen to these voices of caution and concern," said Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.
The issue has stirred controversy in other states including North Carolina, which recently passed a law that would require transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond to the gender listed on their birth certificates.