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Another View -- Jessica Eskeland: Legislature should pass transgender protection bill

March 06. 2017 11:23PM

“WE’RE NOT MONSTERS. We’re just people. Thank you for what you said.” These were the words a transgender woman in the ladies’ room said to me, blinking back tears, just moments after I’d testified in support of House Bill 478, a bill that would ensure that New Hampshire’s nondiscrimination laws include protections for transgender individuals, which will ensure fair access to housing, employment, public services and restroom facilities.

It was almost ironic to be in the exact situation that had been so highly speculated about just moments ago in the hearing. I assured her that as an organization committed to ending violence and creating safe, inclusive communities, supporting this bill was essential.

I was hugely impressed by the turnout at the hearing — men, women and children of all ages packed the double room in the Legislative Office Building and poured out into the hall, with supporters of the bill outnumbering opponents by a margin of seven to one.

Just like anything that comes before the Legislature, there are different sides to this issue, often deeply personal, and we all have the right to our own opinion. As an advocate against domestic violence and sexual assault, however, I was very concerned by some of the arguments used against this bill. These arguments seem to be based on a deeply flawed understanding of the dynamics of sexual assault, who perpetrators are, and what this bill is really about.

It has been argued that passage of this bill would result in predatory men donning dresses, entering bathrooms and sexually assaulting women. Here in New Hampshire, one in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. The sad truth is that the vast majority of these cases, approximately 88 percent of the time, the assailant is someone the victim knows and trusts. While rape at the hands of a random stranger certainly happens and is something to always be aware of, it is the exception, not the norm.

Additionally, if men going into women’s restrooms to perpetrate violence were going to be an issue, we would have seen it already. Anyone who is willing to commit sexual assault is not going to be deterred by rules around which bathroom they’re supposed to use. This bill would in no way weaken our criminal code. Anyone who commits a crime would still be held accountable, just as they are now.

The most frightening criminal concern here is the one facing transgender individuals. As high as the rates of sexual assault are for women, the rates of sexual assault are even higher for the transgender community. One in two transgender individuals will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. This means that transgender people are at grave risk of sexual assault, and many of these individuals are living with the aftermath of trauma and fear of revictimization. Allowing transgender individuals to use the public facilities that correspond with their gender identity is a matter of public safety. I don’t know any woman who would feel safe being forced to use a men’s room, and it’s no different for someone who identifies and expresses themselves as a woman — especially for a population with a drastically heightened risk of being the target of violence.

I often think about the gaps in our efforts to prevent sexual and domestic violence, like the fact that New Hampshire appropriates zero dollars toward sexual assault services or prevention, or the fact that 59 percent of homicides in New Hampshire are domestic violence related, and wondering whatever became of the 2,583 victims and children our shelters had to turn away last year due to lack of funding, and the obvious need for more education to dispel the myths around the realities of sexual assault. Among all these public safety concerns, the gracious woman standing next to me was nowhere on that list.

I urge the Legislature to prioritize public safety for all and to pass HB 478.

Jessica Eskeland is the public policy specialist at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

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