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Emotional testimony on both sides of gender identity bill

State House Bureau

February 21. 2017 8:42PM
A packed hearing on transgender civil rights was held Tuesday at the State House in Concord. (Twitter/Dave Solomon)

CONCORD — For the Rev. Jay McLeod, pastor at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in New London, passage of civil rights protections for transgendered individuals in New Hampshire will mean his 12-year-old niece, born a boy, can grow up feeling safe.

“She’s happy to finally be herself and to cease having to pretend that she is a boy,” he told members of the House Health and Human Services Committee, as he testified Tuesday on behalf of HB 478, which would add gender identity to the state’s civil rights statute.

But for Beth Scaer of Nashua, HB 478 would create new threats in restrooms and locker rooms, where predators claiming to identify as women could stalk young victims.

“If I am in the YMCA locker room with little girls changing from their bathing suits, and a man walks in and he seems threatening to me, what am I supposed to do? Just stand there?” she said. “If I insist he leave, would he respond or would he insist that his rights are being violated?”

Both points of view were represented in a hearing room that was expanded to accommodate the overflow crowd, which lined the walls and spilled into the hallway. More than 80 individuals submitted requests to testify.

“As a father, I don’t want my daughter to have to be in a bathroom with someone who is a male just because that person claims they are a female,” said one opponent of the bill.

The comment prompted state Rep. Jerry Knirk, D-Freedom, to reply, “These bills always turn into bathroom bills.” Knirk held up his cell phone with a photo of transgendered female actress Laverne Cox, nominated for an Emmy for her role in the Netflix hit “Orange is the New Black.”

“You’d feel happier if she walked into the men’s room rather than the women’s room?” he asked.

Committee Vice Chair Donald Lebrun cut the dialogue off as Knirk tried to share the picture. “No exchange of photos necessary,” he said.

Supporters of the bill outnumbered opponents and on several occasions, Lebrun had to call on the crowd to maintain decorum.

Tales of discrimination

Several transgendered individuals spoke of their experiences with discrimination and harassment.

“I have experienced way too many instances of employment discrimination,” said Shana Aisenberg, a transgendered woman from Freedom who works as a musician and music teacher. “Musicians with whom I play stopped calling me .... Students cancelled lessons; a music camp where I taught for 10 years fired me because I changed my gender.”

Some of those in opposition to the bill traveled considerable distances to testify. David Pickup, a marriage and family therapist with practices in Texas and Louisiana, told lawmakers they were “being asked to redefine what it means to be human.”

“Never before in history has any country or society tried to codify in its laws a difference between biological gender and gender identity,” he said.

David Juvet, senior vice president for public policy with the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, was one of several business representatives to speak in support of the bill.

“I strongly disagree with that,” he said of Pickup’s comments. “Our transgendered brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers are already human. We don’t need to redefine anything.”

Jessica Eskeland, public policy coordinator for the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said New Hampshire should join 18 other states and 200 municipalities in adding gender identity to civil rights protections.

“Regarding assertions I heard that this will result in perpetrators basically going into the restroom they don’t identify with to perpetrate crimes; what I can tell you is 80 percent of sexual assault is committed by someone the victim knows and trusts,” she said.

Shannon McGinley, with Cornerstone Action of New Hampshire, urged lawmakers to consider possible unintended consequences of the bill.

“By enshrining in the law an ideology that denies the truth of an integrated human person, we would be undercutting laws that bar discrimination based on physical characteristics,” she said. “Would a shelter for abused women be forced to hire a male staff member who identifies as female?”

Organizations that sent representatives to testify in support of the bill included the state Chiefs of Police Association, the Human Rights Commission, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth and the American Civil Liberties Union.

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