Jan 22, 2024 - News

Post-Dobbs landscape prompts Massachusetts lawmakers to revisit archaic, anti-LGBTQ+ laws

Illustration of a rainbow-colored gavel.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The Dobbs ruling fallout continues: The landmark case has reinvigorated interest in a decades-old bill to wipe archaic Massachusetts laws from the books — specifically laws targeting LGBTQ+ people.

Why it matters: Multiple versions of this bill have fallen flat in the legislature over the years, but the latest version has garnered interest after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas suggested revisiting the rights to same-sex marriage, contraception and private sexual acts, lawmakers say.

Driving the news: The Massachusetts Senate last week unanimously passed the bill, which would remove outdated laws against "sodomy," "night walking" and "unnatural acts."

  • The Senate added an amendment nixing the ban on "blasphemy," which punished residents for saying "God," "Jesus Christ" or the "Holy Spirit" in non-religious contexts, like cursing.
  • The bill would also create a commission tasked with identifying outdated, unconstitutional laws that should be taken off the books.

Context: The laws are currently defunct, following Supreme Court rulings and laws legalizing same-sex marriage, gay sex and other LGBTQ+ rights.

Yes, but: Democrats say that could change if the Supreme Court revisits those rulings, as Thomas suggested.

  • "We need to take off the books archaic laws that, in theory, could become enforceable if the Supreme Court moves further right," says Sen. William Brownsberger, who sponsored this bill with Sen. Julian Cyr.

Plus: Trans rights advocates remain concerned that the law banning "night walking," a term for sex work, continues to disproportionately target Black and brown trans women.

Reality check: The bill needs to pass the House, which for years hasn't had the appetite to take up the issue.

Flashback: Then-Rep. Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat, filed the proposal repeatedly during his nearly four decades in office – ramping up his efforts after the state's same-sex marriage fight – to no avail.

  • Earlier versions of the bill often took on broader swaths of outdated statutes, like bans on spitting, communism and adultery.
  • It stalled amid criticism over whether "blasphemy" and "spitting" should be banned, while anti-discrimination laws, same-sex marriage and conversion therapy bans prevailed.
  • Case law rendered most of these statutes moot, for now.

What they're saying: "For decades, these laws were used to justify arresting and jailing us … and we never want to risk returning to those sorry days," says Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

  • Already, other states have criminalized gender-affirming care and banned drag shows and other practices, targeting the LGBTQ+ community, advocates and lawmakers note.

What's next: Lawmakers have until the end of July, when this legislative session wraps up, to convince House leadership to take up the proposal.

  • Rep. Jay Livingstone, who co-sponsored the House bill after Rushing left office, says he's "hopeful" Speaker Ron Mariano will back the proposal, as he has backed same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ+ rights efforts.
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