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Pittsfield’s City Council Debates Transgender Rights Question

Josh Landes
Pittsfield's American Little League All-Stars at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.

The Pittsfield City Council tackled transgender rights and celebrated the city’s championship Little League team at Tuesday’s meeting.

The proceedings in Pittsfield’s city council chambers began with a festive air as rows of red uniform clad Little Leaguers and their families accepted praise from Mayor Linda Tyer.

“This city, councilor, is filled with talented young athletes," said Tyer. "And tonight we’re here to recognize and congratulate our hometown boys of summer.”

Each member of Pittsfield’s American Little League All-Star team, fresh off a ride around the city’s downtown atop a firetruck, were recognized by name for their historic run that saw them represent the city on ESPN by season’s end, falling just short of the World Series.

“As the victors of the District 1 Little League Championship, Section One Championship, and the Massachusetts State Championship — that’s right — this team symbolizes the values of perseverance and teamwork,” said the mayor.

Manager Joe Skutnik and coaches Ty Perrault and Pat Bramer were also recognized.

After a round of grant acceptances and appointments, the city clerk introduced “a communication from the Pittsfield Human Rights Commission requesting the city council express its support for full equality for all residents of Pittsfield, including the members of Pittsfield’s transgender community.”

Before the meeting, commission chair Drew Herzig spoke to WAMC about what led up to the request.

“Ballot measure number three on the November ballot is concerned with transgender equality in Massachusetts," said Herzig. "A yes on three will preserve transgender equality, a no on three will remove basic first class citizenship for transgender people living in Massachusetts.”

The ballot question concerns the 2016 state law that banned discrimination against transgender people in places of public accommodation — like restaurants and restrooms. A yes vote would maintain the law, while a no vote would repeal parts of it. Herzig said the Human Rights Commission supports a yes vote, and was looking for the council to make a very specific declaration by accepting its communication at the meeting.

“The Pittsfield City Council feels that they can’t take a position on a ballot measure, but we’re asking them to support transgender equality for the people of Pittsfield,” said the commission chair.

Councilor At-Large Melissa Mazzeo, who said she planned to vote yes on the ballot question, felt that the communication was still too tied to the statewide issue.

“I don’t feel like it’s my right to tell people how to vote," said Mazzeo. "I can tell them how I’m voting, but I don’t want to go on the record and say this is how you should vote.”

Council President Peter Marchetti, who sits on the Human Rights Commission, acknowledged her concern and explained why he’d pushed for the language to be more specific.

“The next thing you know you’re going to have a petition saying we endorse a candidate," he said, "and there’s no difference between people going to the ballot box and voting on a question or people going to the ballot box and voting on a candidate or a question.”

But that didn’t satisfy all of Mazzeo’s concerns.

“I don’t know, I’m just having a little bit of trouble with really asking — so what do we say, we’re all going to say yes, we agree for equality for all?" asked a hesitant Mazzeo. "Which isn’t a bad thing to do. I just — I don’t know, I was wondering if anyone else was going to weigh in on this — I didn’t want to be the first one, but.”

Mazzeo was not alone. Councilor Chris Connell of Ward Four agreed with her fear of influencing voters by possibly dictating a position on a ballot question, and echoed Mazzeo and a public speaker at the meeting when he said that asserting the rights of a specific community was repetitive given that the city’s laws already express equality and human rights for all.

“I just don’t feel that it’s something that we should be putting ourselves in the lead here,” said Connell.

“I guess I disagree with many of my colleagues, respectably. I do think that leaders are elected to lead," said Councilor At-Large Peter White. He said the issue is a communal one specific to Pittsfield, not a statewide one. “As far as it being repetitive, I’ll be repetitive every meeting if it means that we’re letting the community know that we stand up for Pittsfield’s transgendered community. And other communities — and other people in our community that need to know we support them. Too many things have gone on because people don’t feel supported, so tonight I am happy to take a vote.”

White went on to say that he had no problem with endorsing both the citywide statement of support as well as a yes vote on the statewide ballot question. Mazzeo saw the communication as inextricably bound to the ballot question.

“How is this going to be written up in an article tomorrow?” she asked.

Councilor Earl Persip responded to her directly.

“We can’t not take a vote because the way an article may be written," he said. "That’s just how I feel.”

He noted that council members had no issue weighing in on charter schools during last year’s election.

“This doesn’t say anything about the ballot question," said Persip. "I’m very comfortable supporting this. I’m kind of disappointed we took this long with it.”

And yet it continued. Connell made an amendment to remove the specific mention of the transgender community from the communication, framing it as a measure to distance it from the ballot question.

“We obviously support the full equality of all residents of Pittsfield. Why does it have to specify one segment?" asked Connell. "If it’s all, it’s all.”

Councilor Helen Moon of Ward One said she could not support that amendment.

“This year, the rights and the liberties of transgendered people are being attacked, so there is an issue at hand," she told the council. "We don’t tell them, we care about all individuals — we have to identify that there is a specific issue at hand, and they are asking at we identify them as members of our community.”

“There are times in our life where some people need a little bit more support," said White. “If we can lend them that support and make it a little more socially acceptable to be supported, this is our duty to do that.”

But Connell still wasn’t satisfied.

“At last night’s O & R meeting, it was brought up to reestablish the homelessness committee," he said. "We support that too — so should we be adding that? Should we be say we support the full equality of homeless people?”

Connell’s amendment fell short, with only he and Councilors Morandi and Simonelli supporting it.

Ultimately, the council unanimously accepted the Human Rights Commission’s request “after all that," as one council member whispered.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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