Following the GOP Senate Race? Your Guide to the “Bathroom Bill”

The primary races for the U.S. Senate are getting into full swing. The Republican candidates are having their first debate tonight and there’s a chance that the “Bathroom Bill” will come up. The members of the GOP’s social conservative wing are so looking forward to it.

One of them, Lisa Barstow, a GOP State Committeewoman and spokesperson for the Massachusetts Family Institute, thinks that the Bathroom Bill means very bad news for candidate Dan Winslow. Winslow was the only GOP member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to vote in favor of the bill, which became law late in 2011.

(If you’re curious about what happened with the bill on the Senate side, the Republicans there, deciding to lay low, did not ask for a roll call, and so the bill passed on a voice vote.)

Some more background. When the Legislature refused to allow a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage onto the ballot in 2007, the anti-gay marriage forces lost their signature issue. In search of new problems to solve, they decided that a bill prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity was an appropriate anti-family target. (The fact that the bill had been filed by openly-gay State Representative Carl Sciortino, who had defeated their ally Vincent Ciampa, didn’t hurt.)

Rep. Sciortino’s bill added “gender identity” to list of protected categories (race, color, religious creed, national origin, sex, etc.) in the state’s civil rights laws, making it illegal, for example, to refuse to hire or to rent an apartment to someone based on gender identity.

The bill also required places of “public accommodation” — restaurants, stores, theaters, train stations, etc. — to be accommodating, so to speak, to people according to their gender identity. Social conservatives objected vehemently to this part of the bill as a threat to public safety, claiming that male sexual predators would victimize women and children in Ladies’ Rooms. “Someone could decide that he’s a woman for the day and go right into the women’s locker room,” they told the Salem News. Thus was born the epithet — “Bathroom Bill.”

Undeterred by the Globe’s condemnation of their tactic as a “playground insult,” they invoked the term “Bathroom Bill” repeatedly against their political opponents in the 2010 elections. Former Attleboro Representative Bill Bowles, for example, has said that his defeat that year had to do with “nasty ‘Bathroom Bill’ literature that was dropped on the windshields of cars in churches on the Sunday before the election.”

In the following legislative session of 2011-2012, although a majority of lawmakers had co-sponsored the bill, they agreed to compromise by dropping the “public accommodation” part and enacting only the civil rights piece. Thus the “Bathroom Bill” that Representative Winslow and 94 Democratic Representatives voted to pass, did not in fact include a “bathroom” provision.

The social conservatives declared victory because the “bathroom” part had been taken out of the “Bathroom Bill,” but they continued to object to the civil rights portion, which they claimed granted “special rights to transsexuals.” And despite their success in defeating the part of the bill they most abhorred, in 2012 they again invoked the word “bathroom” to defeat another state representative who had voted in favor of it. (As a five-year old will tell you, some words really can’t be used too often.)

And so on to the debate tonight. Will Representative Winslow be able to explain that the “Bathroom Bill” he voted for did not contain a “bathroom” provision? Will Michael Sullivan and Gabriel Gomez attempt to thread this needle, opposing just the “bathroom” provision, or will they call for the outright repeal of the “Bathroom Bill?” Will any of this matter in the general election?

We’ll see. All we know at this point is that a Republican debate could make for a pretty wild drinking game if the right question comes up.

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