The bill would amend the state's non-discrimination statute and existing hate crime laws to include gender identity and expression. Thirteen other states and Washington, D.C., have passed similar bills.
"Transgender individuals in Massachusetts face unacceptably high levels of violence and discrimination in their daily lives," said state Rep. Carl Sciortino Jr., a Medford Democrat who co-sponsored the bill. "This bill will extend our statutory civil rights and hate crime protections to the transgender community."
The bill, which was first filed in 2007, has drawn strong opposition from groups like the Massachusetts Family Institute -- a non-profit that "strongly opposes any efforts by political activists to normalize homosexual behavior and all attempts to equate homosexuality with immutable characteristics such as skin color," according to its website.
Roughly 33,000 people in Massachusetts identify themselves as transgender, according to an April 2011 study by the Williams Institute.
A 2009 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 97 percent of transgender people reported being harassed or mistreated at work because of their gender identity or expression. And 47 percent reported being denied a job or promotion or fired.
"I think it's very difficult for transgender people to be out as transgender," said Gunner Scott, president of the Transgender Political Coalition, a main proponent of the bill. "They risk losing employment, housing, credit, family support, even the opportunity to go to school."
Fifteen percent of transgender people reported living on $10,000 or less per year and 19 percent said they have been homeless, according to the survey.
"This is a community that his disproportionally high levels of not only discrimination, but poverty," Sciortino said. "It has a broad impact not only for these individuals and their families but also for the tax payer who doesn't even know a transgender person."
Hate crime statistics suggest transgender people are more likely to be victims of violence than other members of the LGBT community. If the bill is passed, perpetrators that target people based on gender identity would face the same penalties as those who target people because of their race, religion, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation.
The vote comes in the middle of Transgender Awareness Week, a statewide event hosted by the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. The week closes Nov. 20 with Transgender Day of Remembrance -- a memorial to victims of anti-transgender hatred or prejudice.
"Internationally, more than one transgender person a month is murdered for who they are," said Scott, adding that 11 such cases have been documented in Massachusetts since 1979.
This is the first time the bill has made it to a vote -- a feat Sciortino credits to increased awareness.
"It's been a challenging issue in part because the transgender community is not as familiar to people as the gay community," Sciortino said. "But with people like Chaz Bono on Dancing With the Stars, people are getting a better sense of who transgender people are and the challenges they face."