While 11 states are suing the Obama administration for issuing guidelines that protect transgender students, Massachusetts just took a step in the opposite direction. Lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled House passed a bill on Wednesday that would expand existing protections for transgender individuals within the state, the New York Times reports. The state passed protections for transgender people in education, housing, and employment back in 2011; this current bill extends them to public accommodations.
When Governor Charlie Baker signs the bill — after months of silence, he finally indicated his support — transgender people will be allowed to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity, rather than the gender on their birth certificate.
Massachusetts’s passage of the bill isn’t necessarily groundbreaking; several states across the country already have such protections in place. But, as Sarah Warbelow, the legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, told the Times, “The fact that the state is doing it at a moment of heightened awareness around transgender people … is really an important signal to the rest of the country.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a similar order for New York City last month, but in other states, the issue is more controversial. Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin are all suing the Obama administration for even attempting to protect transgender students (the government’s list of guidelines isn’t legally binding, although it does suggest that states that don’t comply will lose government funds), and Kansas’s attorney general announced Wednesday that that state will sue the White House as well.
“In our federal system of government, not every decision needs to be handed down from Washington,” said Kansas attorney general Derek Schmidt in a statement. “And this is a matter best left to state or local authorities, including school boards, as it traditionally has been — and as the law requires.” Other Kansas lawmakers opposed the measure, but senators voted 30-8 along party lines to condemn the federal decree.
This dizzying series of lawsuits and countersuits is a sign of today’s political climate, said Jeffrey Berry, a political-science professor at Tufts University. “This reflects the continuing and deepening polarization of the American public,” he told the Times. “We’re redder and bluer than we were, even just five years ago.”