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Bill would add 'gender identity' to traits protected under NH civil rights laws

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Sunday News

February 18. 2017 9:53PM

Gerri Cannon of Somersworth plans to testify at Tuesday's hearing about how she was fired from her job 11 years ago after she transitioned to become a woman. (Courtesy)

Law enforcement, business and civil liberties groups are supporting a bill that would add "gender identity" to the list of traits protected under the state's civil rights laws.

House Bill 478 would bar discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations.

A public hearing on the bill is set for Tuesday before the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee at 1:15 p.m. in Rooms 305-307 of the Legislative Office Building.

The measure has six Democratic sponsors in the House but four out of five Senate sponsors are Republicans, including Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro.

Its prime sponsor, Rep. Edward Butler, D-Harts Location, said he's seen a striking change in how Granite Staters view this issue since he sponsored similar legislation 8 years ago that failed.

And the gay rights movement led the way, he said. "I think as the LGBT community has gained more understanding and support and protection and legal identity, as we have moved forward with civil unions and marriage, it has helped the transgender community," he said.

Transgender individuals are often "invisible," Butler said, because they are accepted as the gender with which they identify. So there wasn't a lot of public understanding of the issue until recently, he said.

The bill has the backing of the ACLU of New Hampshire. Devon Chaffee, executive director, said it would update existing anti-discrimination laws.

"No one should have to live in fear that they will be unfairly fired, evicted from their home, or refused service at a public place simply because of who they are," she said in an email. "Updating the law is one more tool to help ensure that every Granite Stater - including those who are transgender - has the opportunity to earn a living, meet their obligations, provide for themselves and their families and build a better life."

But Shannon McGinley, a board member at Cornerstone Action, said her organization has some concerns about its implications.

"We respect the dignity of each of our New Hampshire neighbors - this includes respecting privacy and safety," she said in an email. But she said those considerations "might be lost" in the proposed legislation.

"We have some questions, for instance: would day cares, women's shelters, female athletic facilities or all-female ob/gyn practices be required to hire a man who identifies as a woman?" she asked. "Would women and children be forced to be exposed to males in their bathrooms, locker rooms and showers?"

House Bill 478 defines gender identity as "a person's gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that ... is different from that traditionally associated with the person's physiology or assigned sex at birth." It may be shown by providing evidence such as medical history, care or treatment; "consistent and uniform assertion of the identity;" or other evidence that it "is sincerely held as part of a person's core identity," provided that it "shall not be asserted for any improper purpose."

RSA 354-A bars discrimination because of age, sex, race, color, marital status, familial status, physical or mental disability, religious creed or national origin, and sexual orientation. House Bill 478 would add gender identity to that list.

In 1992, lawmakers added an exemption for religious organizations.

Butler said his bill would not affect public schools, since the law only pertains to areas under the oversight of the State Commission for Human Rights: housing, employment and public accommodations.

It's simply about banning discrimination, he said.

"And hopefully we will be able to clearly communicate that to the committee in the hearing and then to the full House so that they can understand that this legislation is needed and will provide protections that the rest of New Hampshire citizens have and that our transgender community deserves," he said.

This is not a "bathroom bill," Butler said. He said that term is used to create fear, adding he's never heard of an incident caused by a transgender person using a bathroom.

"People have been using bathrooms in the gender identity that they have," he said. "And no one has questioned it because they are who they are."

Still, a report released last month found that of 225 transgender people living in New Hampshire surveyed in 2015, more than half had avoided using a public restroom in the previous year "because they were afraid of confrontations or other problems they might experience."

And 27 percent said they had limited the amount they ate or drank to avoid using the restroom.

The survey, which included 27,715 respondents nationwide, was conducted in 2015 by the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C.

It found anecdotal evidence of discrimination here: 23 percent of respondents said they had experienced some form of housing discrimination in the previous year; 22 percent reported being mistreated at a place of public accommodation; and 20 percent said they had been fired, denied a promotion or not been hired because of their gender identity.

But the state has already made some changes. In 2014, the Division of Motor Vehicles created a rule that allows someone to change his or her gender on a driver's license or ID card.

The individual must fill out a form that includes a certification of gender identity from a licensed health-care provider. A new picture is taken and the old license is surrendered.

Gerri Cannon of Somersworth plans to testify at Tuesday's hearing.

Cannon, 64, worked for a large tech firm for 31 years. Born male, when she traveled for business, she would dress as a woman in her off-hours.

Her supervisors found out and she was called in and issued a formal complaint.

After Cannon decided to transition and live openly as a woman, she informed her company of her choice. Shortly thereafter, the company announced layoffs; Cannon's name was on the list.

It was no coincidence, she said. "The people that were deciding who were going to go were the same people who put me on report," she said. "I was a problem and they found an easy way out."

She contacted a couple of lawyers and each told her the same thing: there were no state or federal laws specifically protecting transgender individuals.

Now, 11 years later, Cannon wants lawmakers to hear her story. She also wants to tell them that the lack of protection for transgender individuals here - in contrast to the rest of New England - is hurting the state, preventing some from moving or visiting here.

"Even though we may in fact be a very welcoming state, the outside world doesn't know that," she said.

Cannon has two grown daughters and a grandson.

"My kids still call me Dad," she said. "They love me just the way I am. They actually think I'm a better parent now than I ever was."

The Business and Industry Association supports the bill. So does the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.

David Juvet, senior vice president for public policy at BIA, said the measure has "extraordinarily strong" support from members. "They had already not only resolved issues related to transgender populations in the workplace but had just such uniformly positive experience with transgender employees," he said.

The BIA's executive committee voted to support the bill. "Their discussion was really along the lines of this is just the right thing to do," Juvet said. "We don't want to be on the wrong side of history here."

Northwood Police Chief Glendon Drolet, president of the New Hampshire Chiefs of Police Association, said his organization's members felt the same way. "It seems like the right thing to do," he said.

Dover Police Chief Anthony Colarusso Jr. will be at Tuesday's hearing. "It just makes sense to us that everybody should be treated fairly and not be discriminated against regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity," he said.

He said he's been asked why this group needs special protection. "I say the very same reason why the other groups mentioned needed protection: because they were being discriminated against," he said.

swickham@unionleader.com


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