The Hippo


Mar 24, 2019








Emily Fishbaugh

Transgender bill debate
House bill hearing draws hundreds of supporters

By Ryan Lessard

 A few years ago, Palana Belken of Somersworth decided to live openly as her true self, as a woman. She moved to New Hampshire, came out to her closest friends and family and began taking hormones.

At first, the decision was overwhelming.
“Like, crap, how is my mechanic going to react? All these little things. Suddenly you have to redefine your relationship with everyone,” Belken said.
That included her relationship with her coworkers and bosses. While she lived as a woman in her personal life, she continued to act the part of a man at the warehouse where she worked. She was well-liked by her employers, but she suspected she would not be up for raises if she was openly transgender. 
For one, the workplace culture was not particularly progressive on the topic. When Caitlyn Jenner came out publicly as trans, the shop talk Belken overheard about it was discouraging. Plus, she worried that her bosses might see her as a health care cost burden. And when she looked at the employee handbook, and at state laws, she found nothing that would prevent discrimination against transgender people.
“I was worried about losing my job, and I was living paycheck to paycheck,” Belken said.
And as a new younger generation of openly transgender people begin to enter the workplace, those concerns are shared by many, like Emily Fishbaugh, 16, of North Hampton.
“Since I’m 16, I’m going to be working [soon],” Fishbaugh said. 
She and Belken hope that a bill in the legislature will prevent any potential discrimination that might hurt their ability to earn a living. 
HB 1319
The bill, sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans, would amend the state’s anti-discrimination statute, which already protects people in the state based on age, race, religion, sex, color, marital status, disability and more, to add gender identity. The protections would ban things like workplace discrimination, housing discrimination or discriminatory practices in public accomodations.
The bill would go into effect 30 days after its passage.
On Jan. 31, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing for the bill and so many people showed up, mostly in support of the bill, that the committee relocated the hearing from the Legislative Office Building to Representatives Hall in the Statehouse, where nearly half the 400 seats were subsequently filled.
During the hearing, members of the public, elected representatives and advocates for and against the bill testified before the committee. Many of the comments were in support, from family members of transgender people and sponsors of the bill. 
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire expressed support of the bill. Executive Director Devon Chaffee said the bill would bring clarity to the law, without which some trans people may be forced to lead double lives.
“Some of those individuals can’t afford to risk … coming out,” Chaffee said.
Some testified against the bill, arguing that there is already sufficient protection from Superior Court precedent, though the language of that decision in the 1980s defined transgender identity as a mental disability. Chaffee said future court decisions could overturn that precedent, and an explicit statute prevents more litigation.
One member of the public expressed concern that the bill would increase the likelihood that men would pretend to be transgender in order to use a women’s public restroom to prey on and assault women.
“There is no protection for women in this bill,” she said.
Perhaps the most vocal opponent to the bill was the state’s religious right lobby, Cornerstone Action. Executive Director Shannon McGinley pronounced a wide-ranging list of arguments against the bill, saying it would erode women’s advances in recent years, that hormones for transgender teens would be tantamount to performance-enhancing drugs in youth sports, and that a lack of clarity in the bill would subject people accused of discrimination to an administrative process rather than a fair trial.
She also questioned the legitimacy of transgender identity, asserting that gender is objective and based on biology, and she echoed concerns about trans people using the restrooms that match their gender identity.
Ray Buckley, the head of the state Democratic party and a gay man, drew parallels to this bill and advancing the rights of gay and lesbian people to get married and adopt children. He said many predicted the end of civilization would soon follow such changes.
“The world didn’t end,” Buckley said.
Anthony Colarusso, the chief of police in Dover, spoke on behalf of himself and the New Hampshire Chiefs of Police Association. He said the organization supports the bill as a “logical next step” in civil rights. 
He also argued that the idea of bathrooms becoming a hunting ground for molesters is little more than creating a “boogeyman.” 
In his 20 years of experience as a detective and supervisor, he’s overseen numerous sexual abuse cases, and he says the real risks are the neighbor next door, the man who dates a mom to get at the kids, or a person who puts himself in a position of authority and access to vulnerable kids, like a coach or a gymnastics doctor. 
“This fear-mongering is just inaccurate, it’s not true, and there’s no evidence to suggest that people will be in danger because of this bill,” Colarusso said.
Conversely, he said during his testimony that trans people using the restroom that corresponds to their birth gender would put them at further risk of assault or harassment.
The trans experience
Belken said the need for this legislation is “urgent” because there are many young and hopeful trans people entering the workforce. And things haven’t been easy for young trans people, even when their families are accepting of their gender identity.
A.J. Trembley of Strafford is 18 and can remember first realizing she was transgender when she was 3 years old.
“I didn’t fit in with the boys and I was rejected by the girls,” Tremblay said. “We are human and we all want to be treated alike and we deserve rights.”
Emily Fishbaugh, who is friends with Trembley and other teenage trans girls who attended the hearing, said she knew she was a girl since she was about 4 years old, as soon as she could start to express herself. She didn’t have a word for it until she was 7.
“I was very miserable for my early childhood, just because I was pretending to be a boy and I was living in this body that was not right and I did not feel comfortable. So, by the time I was 10, I was finally ready to transition and show the world Emily,” Fishbaugh said. 
In the fourth grade, her parents sent letters to the other households in her grade so they knew to treat her as a girl.
Now, she and Trembley hope their generation will be able to leave school and be accepted by employers and landlords. 

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