BOSTON (AP) — U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy is pressing state lawmakers to approve legislation strengthening legal protections for transgender people.
Kennedy, a Democrat, said Massachusetts lags behind 17 other states and Washington, D.C., which have updated public accommodations laws to include transgender people. Among the states with tougher protections, he said, are several in New England: Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
"Given Massachusetts' history of leadership on equality, on equal protections ... it's pretty surprising our name is absent from that list," he said Thursday.
Former Gov. Deval Patrick, also a Democrat, signed a bill in 2011 protecting transgender people from discrimination in the workplace and housing by adding "gender identity and expression" to the state's civil rights laws.
It's time to broaden those protections, Kennedy said.
An aide to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said he backs the law signed by Patrick but doesn't support changes to the state's public accommodations law.
"The administration fully supports the Transgender Equal Rights Act that became law in 2011 because the administration believes everyone in Massachusetts should be protected against discrimination and prefers the current law regarding public accommodations," Baker spokesman Tim Buckley said.
Baker, in his failed 2010 campaign for governor, labeled legislation that would extend public accommodations protections to transgender people the "bathroom bill."
Kennedy said critics have to get past their discomfort when it comes to protecting the rights of fellow citizens. He said he's used public restrooms in states with public accommodations laws for transgender people and any worries people might have have been debunked.
He also said he's heard the concerns of parents and transgender students, including one who had to carefully plan a six-hour drive back from college without using a restroom after having once been kicked out of one and told to leave.
"I drive down to DC not infrequently," Kennedy said. "Never in my mind do I think about timing that — or not drinking water or Diet Coke or coffee or whatever else — to not have to use the restroom along the way."
Kennedy said the reluctance of Massachusetts lawmakers to expand civil rights for transgender people makes it more difficult for him to make the same argument in Congress.
"It gives some critics cover to say, 'Hey, look, progressive Massachusetts hasn't even put in these protections. Why should the rest of the country?'" he said.
Attorney General Maura Healey also backs the change in the public accommodations law. Healey said that Massachusetts, despite helping lead the way on gay marriage, still has work to do to protect the civil rights of transgender residents and keep lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people safe.
She said LGBT youths are more likely to be bullied, to run away from home or to attempt suicide than other young people.
"I hope that one day soon a day will come when being gay or transgender makes no difference at all," she said.