By Julie Moreau

There is no evidence that letting transgender people use public facilities that align with their gender identity increases safety risks, according to a new study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. The study is the first of its kind to rigorously test the relationship between nondiscrimination laws in public accommodations and reports of crime in public restrooms and other gender-segregated facilities.

“Opponents of public accommodations laws that include gender identity protections often claim that the laws leave women and children vulnerable to attack in public restrooms,” said lead author Amira Hasenbush. “But this study provides evidence that these incidents are rare and unrelated to the laws.”

To determine whether a relationship exists between nondiscrimination laws and crime, Hasenbush, a law and policy fellow at the Williams Institute, zeroed in on Massachusetts, where at the time of the study some localities had transgender-inclusive public accommodation laws and others did not. She and her team compared cities and towns with similar characteristics that had such laws to those that did not. They then examined police reports of assault and privacy violations in these localities both before and after the laws came into effect.

The data were collected prior to the 2016 passage of Massachusetts’ statewide nondiscrimination law that protects transgender people in employment, housing and public accommodations.

“Research has shown that transgender people are frequently denied access, verbally harassed or physically assaulted while trying to use public restrooms,” according to Jody L. Herman, one of the study’s authors and a public policy scholar at the Williams Institute. “This study should provide some assurance that these types of public accommodations laws provide necessary protections for transgender people and maintain safety and privacy for everyone.”

TRANS RIGHTS ON THE BALLOT

The Williams Institute study comes just two months before the appearance of a Massachusetts ballot initiative that seeks to repeal the state’s 2016 nondiscrimination law, known as Senate Bill 2407, which added gender identity to existing laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations.

Opponents of the nondiscrimination law have been trying to repeal it since its passage. The group Keep MA Safe, founded less than two weeks after Gov. Charlie Baker signed Senate Bill 2407 in July 2016, argues that the law will enable people with “evil intentions” to “prey on the vulnerable.”

“This bill would endanger the privacy and safety of women and children in public bathrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms, and other intimate places (such as common showers), opening them to whomever wants to be there at any given time, and also to sexual predators who claim ‘confusion’ about their gender,” Keep MA Safe Chairman Chanel Pruner stated on the organization’s website.

The organization succeeded in putting the Massachusetts Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Veto Referendum on the ballot this November, making Massachusetts the first state to see a transgender nondiscrimination protection come up for a statewide vote.

As for the Williams Institute study, Yvette Ollada, a consultant for Keep MA Safe, called it “totally biased” and claimed “there was an obvious conflict of interest on the part of the researchers and publishers.” Ollada alleged the study’s researchers shared their findings with those in favor of keeping the nondiscrimination law in place before it was available to the public and denied that same early access to Keep MA Safe.

“This speaks to the bias of the researchers and publishers at UCLA, that they would withhold the study from one political campaign and share it with another,” Ollada said.

When asked about Ollada's claims, Rachel Dowd, a spokesperson for the Williams Institute, said "there was no conflict of interest in this study."

"The Williams Institute is an independent academic research institution," she told NBC News. "We never alter the methodology or conclusions of a study to serve the interests of any outside organization."

Mason Dunn, co-chair of the Yes on 3 Campaign, which seeks to keep the nondiscrimination law in place, said the Williams Institute study “once and for all puts this issue to rest.

“The law passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Baker in 2016 simply provides critical protections from discrimination for transgender people,” Dunn said. He accused opponents of the nondiscrimination measure of “peddling lies in an attempt to mislead and scare voters.”

NATIONAL LANDSCAPE

While Title II of the Civil Rights Act protects access to public accommodations — including hotels, restaurants and places of entertainment — on the basis of “race, color, religion, or national origin,” there is no federal law that protect people’s rights to access public spaces on the basis of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Advocates say this void leaves transgender people particularly susceptible to discrimination.

A bathroom sign welcomes both genders in Durham, North Carolina.Jonathan Drake / Reuters file

According to data collected by the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank, Massachusetts is one of only 19 states and some 250 municipalities with transgender nondiscrimination protections in public accommodations.

Two other ballot measures designed to restrict transgender individuals’ access to public facilities failed in 2018. In April, voters in Anchorage, Alaska, rejected a ballot measure that would have mandated “intimate facilities” in municipal buildings, like restrooms and locker rooms, only be used by persons of the same “sex.” And in Montana, the "Montana Locker Room Privacy Act,” a measure that would have required people to use public restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their sex assigned at birth, failed to get on the November ballot.

North Carolina remains the only state to have successfully passed (and then subsequently repealed) legislation that restricted transgender people’s usage of sex-segregated public facilities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 19 other states have considered such legislation since 2016.

Opponents of transgender nondiscrimination protections tend to focus on bathrooms and locker rooms, according to Logan Casey, a policy researcher at Movement Advancement Project, but he stressed that public accommodation laws extend far beyond these typically gender-segregated places to restaurants, doctors’ offices and government facilities.

“It’s about your whole life outside of your house,” Casey added.

While the 2018 legislative session did not see the passage any measures aimed specifically at restricting transgender access to public accommodations, according to the Movement Advancement Project, the organization noted laws restricting adoption and foster care for LGBTQ parents and measures affecting the content of sexual-education curricula were passed in Oklahoma, Kansas, South Carolina and Indiana.

Casey added that his organization is expecting a “coordinated attack on trans people” to continue in the coming legislative session with “many more bills to be introduced” to limit the rights of the trans community.

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