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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, June 16, 2024

Tufts works to promote transgender rights across campus and state

When senior Luke Sherman began his summer internship at the statewide advocacy organization MassEquality, he took on a meaningful role in the group’s fight against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. In bringing this experience back to Tufts, he has continued to spread awareness about discrimination against transgender people in areas of public accommodation -- an issue that the Tufts administration has also begun to tackle.

At a presentation he delivered at the LGBT Center in September, Sherman explained that four years ago, state legislation was passed to ensure that it would no longer be legal to discriminate against someone based on gender identity. However, days before it was passed, it was stripped of a key provision that would have prohibited discrimination against individuals on the basis of gender identity within public accommodations, which is a protection afforded to citizens of 17 other states. 

Sherman pointed to several key areas that fall under the classification of “public accommodations,” specifically highlighting locations such as retail establishments and, more notably, hospitals and healthcare facilities. Sherman went on to share statistics that were recently gathered from surveys of transgender people in Massachusetts, noting how they delineate a real, institutionalized problem.

“Sixty-five percent of those responding to the survey reported that they have received some form of discrimination in public accommodations in the past 12 months,” Sherman said. “It was shocking to me when I first started to work with this issue that…Massachusetts is thought of as a progressive state, but that it doesn’t provide protection for transgender people in these areas … If you can’t even receive the same access to medical care, it’s difficult to enjoy the same sort of quality of life that other people have.”

Sherman also referenced instances in which doctors might object to providing care for transgender patients as a consequence of religious or moral beliefs.

Now, MassEquality is focused on remedying this oversight by catalyzing the passage of "H. 1577: An Act relative to gender identity and nondiscrimination" and "S. 735: An Act relative to transgender anti-discrimination," which represent equality for all people, regardless of their identities, Sherman explained.

“This bill is about ensuring that [transgender people] have the same protections afforded to all other groups on the basis of race, sexual orientation…marital status [and] disability,” Sherman said.

Though the hearing concerning the bill occurred on Oct. 6,Sherman explained that the Joint Committee on the Judiciary is currently reviewing the testimony that was submitted. He elaborated that MassEquality has been exerting a final push for the legislation to pass before the end of 2015, the official start of the election year.

In the days before the hearing, Sherman worked to rally a cohort of volunteers to send postcards to lawmakers, demonstrate support via social media and make calls at phone banks. From his perspective, the effort proved to be worthwhile.

“The hearing went really well; hundreds of supporters attended it," he said. "Attorney General Maura Healey and Congressman Joe Kennedy testified in person, which drew some great attention to the need for public accommodations protections for transgender people.”

Nevertheless, Sherman urged the Tufts community to maintain a vested, active interest in addressing existing disparities, and to use individual voices to sound a collective roar toward lawmakers.

“I think it would be really great if more Tufts students really took the time to get involved in any way they can,” Sherman said. “I think this is a really critical issue…[and it’s] pretty despicable that this sort of discrimination is taking place in our state at such a pervasive level … As college students, I believe that we have a responsibility to address it.”

LGBT Center Director Nino Testa said he believes that the proposed legislation is an unambiguously constructive change, but he argues that other fundamental changes -- and a lot of introspection on the part of cisgender people -- will be necessary to ameliorate the issue.

“A piece of legislation is never enough to fundamentally transform the experience of an oppressed or marginalized group in relation to the violence and discrimination they face, but it is certainly a vital piece of the puzzle,” Testa said. “The rest of the puzzle involves cisgender folks interrogating their role in undoing this violence and educating more people about how deeply ingrained cis-supremacy is in our culture. It is also an important way for the state of Massachusetts to send a clear message about the value of trans and gender non-conforming people in our communities.”

While Massachusetts does not safeguard public accommodations rights for transgender people, various municipalities have taken matters into their own hands to protect their local citizens; Somerville, Boston and Swampscott are among the 13 Massachusetts cities that include gender identity in public accommodations policy. However, Sherman emphasized the lack of all-encompassing, statewide policies gives local governments, particularly in the western part of the state, the regulatory leeway to turn a blind eye to these issues. This is why MassEquality is issuing a call to arms across the state to expand the number of jurisdictions adopting this sort of legislation, and applying pressure on state lawmakers to codify protections for transgender people that will supersede any local laws.

Governor [Charlie] Baker [R-Mass.] ran in 2010, and explicitly said he opposes the bill vehemently…[and] represents a relatively culturally conservative constituency,” Sherman said. “Given that we are working with a much different political climate than we were in 2011…[We’ve been] appealing very intentionally to business groups…a number of [which] are co-chairing the initiative…[and will] directly…submit testimonies at the hearing.”

Sherman cited a long list of financial corporations and industrial entities that are supporting the effort, including Google, Eastern Bank,Cape Air, Facebook, John Hancock Financial, Biogen, Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce and, notably, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, where Baker was once CEO.

Among the broad coalition of business groups was a contingent of higher educational institutions lending support and name-recognition to the cause. Tufts was the third school, and the first non-all women’s institution, to publicly endorse the bill, according to Sherman.

In order to solicit help in getting Tufts leadership to express their support, Sherman took his case to Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) Mark Brimhall-Vargas.

“I asked to have President [Anthony] Monaco consider supporting this legislation, and he was very supportive,” Brimhall-Vargas told the Daily in an email. “In general, I think this conveys the resident’s deeper understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion. He recognizes that issues of diversity are not just about people getting along. Rather, it is also about guaranteeing basic access to our social institutions.”

Hence, on Sept. 4, Monacosent a letter directly to Baker, imploring him to support the passage of the bill, specifically referencing the personal stake the university has in protecting its community members. He also wrote that Tufts has a rich history of promoting the equity and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons affiliated with the university.

“Tufts has long been a recognized leader in ensuring equality for LGBTQ members on our campuses. We hope to work in collaboration with other businesses and non-profit institutions to ensure equality for all residents of the Commonwealth,” Monaco told the Daily in an email. “We recognize that some of the needs expressed by transgender persons can be readily addressed; e.g., changes in data systems. Others requests, particularly related to physical infrastructure, take more time.”

In Monaco’s letter to Baker, he touted Tufts’ recent appearance on the 2015 Campus Pride Top 25 “Best of the Best” LGBTQ-Friendly Colleges and Universities list, and explained that supporting this cause is consistent with the campus culture.

Sherman expressed appreciation for Monaco’s exchange with Baker, and said he understood that Monaco is unable to express support for every issue on campus, but was thrilled that the president took initiative in this particular case.

Patricia Campbell, university executive vice president, elaborated that this designation is undeniably something the university has worked hard to earn and is honored by, but cautions that there is room for improvement, particularly since this is a title that she hopes to maintain.

“I definitely think that Tufts has been leading in its interest and success in creating a comfortable environment for inclusion … I do think there is still work to be done to help the entire community understand how to be the most supportive and respectful,” Campbell said.

In moving forward with inclusivity regarding transgender rights, and with the intent to foster a more universally accepting environment, Campbell explained that the university has established a task force to assess which aspects of campus life can be altered to promote gender-identity equality. The formation of this group, she believes, is a critical first step in advancing the policies that are already in place and improving upon a still imperfect system, which Monaco also highlighted as a primary objective of the university.

“The campus is committed to being proactive when it comes to issues of inclusion for transgender faculty, staff and students,” Monaco said. “In collaboration with the CDO and other campus leaders, the Director of the LGBT Center has initiated a process of self-evaluation for the campus to look for places where we can make improvements in the ‘everyday’ experiences such as housing, recreation, campus engagement, employment, etc.”

Testa believes that the campus environment can be conducive to alleviating disparities that exist between cisgender and transgender members of the Tufts community.

“We have the conditions necessary at Tufts to have difficult conversations about gender and work toward a more equitable campus experience for all of our students, regardless of gender. I hope that people want to continue having that conversation,” Testa said.

According to Testa, efforts to foster a more inclusive campus have included myriad workshops and trainings provided by the LBGT Center. These workshops are aimed at extending participants’ knowledge and awareness about LGBTQ identities, as well as providing greater insight into how to shape vocabulary vis-à-vis pronouns, gender and names. This encompasses the pronoun-fluency training that all Orientation Leaders underwent prior to Matriculation this year.

Campbell elaborated on other steps being taken across the university to ensure equality for transgender people on campus, including signage to create single-use facilities rather than specifically male or female restrooms. She also said that the task force is examining manners through which the school can provide more gender-equitable housing on campus.

Despite the clear changes that are underway at Tufts, Brimhall-Vargas warns against complacency. He believes that the alterations put in place by the school, as well as those that would come with the bill’s passage in the Massachusetts legislature, are steps that clearly should be put in place.

“Everyone to whom I spoke recognizes that creating an inclusive campus means that all people at Tufts should be able to go between the campus and the surrounding community without fearing that they are less safe or have less access to public accommodations once they cross the road,” Brimhall-Vargas said. "It's obvious."