By Sheila Harrington
One year ago, the Massachusetts legislature updated state law to include full protections for transgender people from discrimination. That was a testament to our Commonwealth’s values of fairness for all. Now, we’re facing a potential repeal of that important step forward as we head to defend the law on the 2018 ballot.
Like many people across Massachusetts and throughout the country, I have thought deeply about my stance on transgender issues. Like many of the constituents I represent and the representatives I work with, I have been conflicted.
Six years ago, I stood before my colleagues in the Statehouse and spoke passionately against a bill ensuring full protections for transgender people in public places, including restrooms. I care deeply about personal freedom, safety and privacy, and doing the right thing. I had tremendous angst about the potential consequences of passing this bill and believed that opposing transgender rights was the best vote I could make.
But I got it wrong …
Since that time, I have had the opportunity to listen again and for many hours, to transgender people and their loved ones who have eloquently and courageously shared their stories and experiences.
As a member of the Legislature, and a member of the Judiciary Committee, it has been my job to attend hearings and to listen, understand, look at the facts, and refuse to give in to fear or vague speculation as to what could happen. I examined this debate with a more open and honest heart and mind during the hearings that followed my speech six years ago. I listened to law enforcement who offered their professional advice that transgender protections lead to virtually no increase in public safety incidents. I listened to parents who told heartbreaking stories of the hardships their transgender children had faced. I listened to transgender men and women who have faced harassment simply for being who they are. I tried to put myself in their shoes.
I also listened to opponents. However, they did not testify from personal experience or data. Their opposition was overwhelmingly based upon speculation as to the issues we might encounter if this bill passes. Their opposition was rooted in what could happen, not what has happened. Their opposition stemmed from myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions about who transgender people are and what this law would do. Now, we have seen in the past year that their speculation was wrong. This law has only made Massachusetts a stronger, more welcoming place for all.
I have been well aware of the arguments made against transgender rights, because I once made them myself. But I also know now that they are wrong.
Many people have said that they could not support the transgender bill because of their faith. I have been raised as in the Roman Catholic faith all my life. I went to 16 years of Catholic school, including four years at Providence College. I do not purport to be a religious scholar or an expert on the Bible, but there are a few things that I have certainly taken from my faith. I believe God told us to “Love one another as I have loved you!” and he didn’t add, “unless they are transgender.” Nor did he say, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me … unless they are transgender.” I now support transgender protections fully because of my faith, not in spite of it!
When I first campaigned to become a state representative, I was asked if I’d ever consider changing my position on any issue. I remember thinking to myself, “I hope I’m never that arrogant that I would refuse to grow, to learn and to listen.” As a politician, it’s difficult to admit you were wrong. But as a legislator, it’s also my job to educate myself, learn the truth, and make decisions that ensure the well-being and safety of all — not just some — of my constituents.
Transgender equality is not about a new or special privilege. It is about preventing discrimination, plain and simple. We must have the courage to do what we believe is right. I was wrong six years ago. I’m proud to have done my part last year to make Massachusetts a better, more equal, fairer state for everyone, and I will vote in 2018 to continue treating transgender people fairly and equally.
Sheila Harrington is a Republican state representative from Groton whose district also includes Ashby, Ayer’s Precinct 1, Dunstable, Pepperell and Townsend.