On July 8, 2016, Governor Baker signed into law An Act Relative to Transgender Anti-Discrimination, St. 2016, c. 134 (the “Act”), expanding Massachusetts’ protection against gender identity discrimination. Before the Act, the Transgender Equal Rights Act (“TERA”), St. 2011, c. 199, had prohibited gender identity discrimination in employment, housing, education, credit and lending. The Act now prohibits gender identity discrimination in places of public accommodation. G.L. c. 272, § 98, as amended by St. 2016, c. 134, § 3. It also requires places of public accommodation that lawfully segregate or separate access based on a person’s sex to “grant all persons admission to, and the full enjoyment of, such places of public accommodation, consistent with the person’s gender identity.” G.L. c. 272, § 92A, para. 2, as amended by St. 2016, c. 134, § 2 (emphasis added).
Guidance on the new law was issued on September 1, 2016, by the Attorney General’s Office (“AGO”) and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”). The MCAD issued clarified guidance on December 5, 2016, as discussed in more detail below. This article provides an overview of the AGO and MCAD guidance and recommended best practices.
Effective October 1, 2016, the Act amended G.L. c. 272, §§ 92A and 98 to include gender identity as an unlawful basis for discrimination in places of public accommodation. St. 2016, c. 134, § 5. A place of public accommodation is “any place whether licensed or unlicensed which is open to and accepts or solicits the patronage of the general public.” G.L. c. 272, § 92A. The definition is broad: a place of public accommodation can be either public or private, can provide products or services (regardless of whether it charges for products, services, or admission), and can include retail stores, restaurants, hotels, theaters, museums, libraries, public facilities, and sports and health clubs. AGO Guidance, p. 2. After a lawsuit filed by four religious organizations (which has been voluntarily dismissed), the AGO removed an unqualified reference to “houses of worship” from its list of examples of places of public accommodation. The MCAD similarly clarified that although the Act would not apply to religious organizations if such application “would violate the organization’s First Amendment rights,” places of public worship may be subject to the public accommodations law if they engage in, or their facilities are used for, a “public, secular function.” MCAD Guidance, p. 4.
Gender identity is defined as “a person’s gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth.” G.L. c. 4, § 7, Fifty-ninth. A person’s gender identity must be “sincerely held as part of the person’s core identity.” Id. It includes transgender, that is, “a person whose gender identity is different from that person’s assigned birth sex.” AGO Guidance, p. 1; MCAD Guidance, p. 6.
Examples of unlawful gender identity discrimination by places of public accommodation include: refusing or denying services; offering different or inferior services; advertising the refusal to accept business from or patronage of transgender or gender non-conforming individuals; providing false information about the availability of products, goods or services, facilities or admission; and harassment or intimidation. AGO Guidance, p. 2; MCAD Guidance, pp. 4-5. Moreover, it is now a crime, punishable by fine and/or imprisonment, and subject to a private right of action, for any individual to “aid or incite another in making a distinction, discriminating against or restricting an individual from a place of public accommodation” based on gender identity. MCAD Guidance, p. 4.
Use of Sex-Segregated Facilities
By far, the law’s most controversial provision concerns the use of sex-segregated facilities (e.g., bathrooms). Although places of public accommodation need not eliminate sex-segregated facilities, they must now allow patrons to use the facility most consistent with their gender identity. G.L. c. 272, § 92A, para. 2, as amended by St. 2016, c. 134, § 2. A person should be presumed to be using the facility most consistent with their gender identity if the person is not engaged in any improper or unlawful conduct. AGO Guidance, pp. 2-3. A person should not be presumed to be using the wrong facility based solely upon the person’s appearance. Id., p. 3.
If a place of public accommodation has a legitimate concern (i.e., about potentially improper or unlawful conduct) as to whether a person is using the appropriate facility, a limited inquiry of the person is recommended through a “private and discrete conversation.” Id., pp. 3-4. After confirming that the person is using the appropriate facility, the inquiry should end. Id., p. 4.
Improper or Unlawful Purpose
Gender identity cannot be asserted for an “improper or unlawful purpose.” G.L. c. 4, § 7, Fifty-ninth. Examples of such conduct include:
- loitering in a facility for the purpose of observing other patrons;
- harassment of employees or patrons;
- threats or violence;
- photographing or videotaping others without their permission; and
- violation of the law.
If a place of public accommodation has reasonable grounds to believe that a person is using the facility for an improper or unlawful purpose, it may take action consistent with its usual policies regarding removing persons who engage in improper conduct, including contacting law enforcement if warranted. Id.
Request for Proof of Gender Identity
Only in very limited circumstances is it permissible to request proof of gender identity. AGO Guidance, p. 4; MCAD Guidance, pp. 6-7. If a place of public accommodation, such as a health or sports club, regularly requires documentation of gender for all members, an individual’s gender identity may be documented by presenting “any one of the following:
- (1) a driver’s license or any other government-issued identification;
- (2) a letter from a doctor, therapist or other healthcare provider;
- (3) a letter from a friend, clergy or family member regarding the individual’s routine conduct such as dress, grooming and the use of corresponding pronouns; or;
- (4) any other evidence that the gender identity is sincerely held as a part of the person’s core identity.”
AGO Guidance, p. 4 (emphasis in original); MCAD Guidance, pp. 6-7 (providing additional examples). A place of public accommodation cannot use a request for documentation to harass, intimidate, embarrass or otherwise discriminate. AGO Guidance, p. 4; MCAD Guidance, p. 6.
The Act’s major change is to ensure that places of public accommodations are accessible to all persons, consistent with their gender identity, and that employees of public facilities are properly trained in the Act’s provisions. Most businesses updated their anti-discrimination policies following enactment of the TERA; similar updates are warranted in light of the Act. The following adapts the best practice recommendations in the updated MCAD guidance for places of public accommodation:
- Update employment policies and training materials to include a statement that discrimination and harassment based on gender identity is prohibited;
- Prohibit derogatory comments or jokes about transgender people and promptly investigate and discipline persons who engage in prohibited conduct;
- Update business and personnel records, payroll records, email systems and all other administrative records to reflect the stated name and gender identity of employees, clients and vendors;
- Use appropriate names and pronouns corresponding to each person’s stated gender identification in communications;
- Avoid gender-specific dress codes and permit attire that is consistent with each person’s stated gender identity;
- Develop a written policy concerning procedures for when a person undergoes gender transition and which promotes the confidentiality of the person’s transition; and
- Develop a policy that provides access to any sex-segregated facility consistent with a person’s gender identity and train all staff on the policy.
The Act is not expected to usher in a new round of litigation, in light of the TERA’s prior enactment and the public accommodation law’s liberal construction by courts and the MCAD. See e.g., Joyce v. Town of Dennis, 705 F. Supp. 2d 74, 83 (D. Mass. 2010). But, all places of public accommodation should review their policies and procedures to ensure that they are in compliance with the new law.
Andrea Peraner-Sweet is a partner at Fitch Law Partners LLP. Her practice focuses on general business litigation with an emphasis on employment litigation as well as probate litigation.