MANCHESTER, N.H. — The presidential primary came and went in New Hampshire, but transgender advocates said candidates left the state before giving adequate voice to issues facing the community.
Gerri Cannon, a 63-year-old resident of Sommersworth, N.H., said transgender rights were a sorely missed topic in a state that lacks legal protections based on gender identity, even though anti-gay discrimination is prohibited.
“I don’t think any of the candidates are speaking about transgender issues on the campaign trail,” Cannon said. “I think it’s one of those things that’s buried because it’s too contentious.”
New Hampshire is one of three states in the country — along with Wisconsin and New York — that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation under their human rights laws, but have no statutory bans on anti-transgender bias. (Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took executive action to spell out the prohibition on gender discrimination in the state applies to transgender people.)
Cannon said seven years ago she was fired from her job at Hewlett Packard, even though she had been with the combined company for more than 30 years, after she issued a statement indicating she would transition on the job. (Cannon said she was terminated after Carly Fiorinia was CEO of the company.)
“For a company that had a 100 percent [Human Rights Campaign] status, that was a little awkward, and it hurt,” Cannon said.
After leaving behind a six-figure salary and being homeless for a time, Cannon eventually found work in carpentry, then driving a 70-foot, 18-wheel tractor trailer. She agreed to not take legal action against Hewlett Packard in exchange for a severance package, she said. Now, she’s essentially retired and lives on disability.
She’s now a transgender activist and is part of the PFLAG council in New Hampshire and serves on the board of the United Church of Christ in the state.
“I am a proud, Christian transgender woman,” Cannon said. “I know there are some places around the country that would have a fit with that statement, but I am. That’s the way it is.”
Cannon said transgender rights are “non-existent for the most part” in New Hampshire and transgender people have “run into situations” in employment or housing.
“It’s inconsistent how transgender people are treated in the state,” Cannon said. “Because there is no formal law, whether every business place…when you go out to a restaurant or club or whatever is totally dependent on the owners of the facility and how they want to treat people. Because there are no laws, sometimes they get the shaft and sometimes they don’t.”
Another problem for trans people in New Hampshire, Cannon said, is they cannot change the gender marker on their birth certificates, even though they can change their name or the gender identification on their driver’s licenses. The driver’s license policy was changed about a year-and-a-half ago.
“When you’re applying for health insurance, there’s still a chance that comes up because you have to let people know how you are listed,” Cannon said.
Those kinds of challenges make trans advocates in New Hampshire say they want to see more from the presidential candidates on where they stand on issues facing the transgender community. (Cannon, however, said it might be better for the Republicans to remain silent because anything they’d say would be negative.)
Casey O’Dea of University of New Hampshire was among those who said he wants to hear more from the presidential candidates on transgender rights.
“I would definitely like to see more protection for trans people in employment and housing and just anti-discrimination policies in general being talked about more and being put into place, especially in New Hampshire where obviously that is lacking right now,” O’Dea said.
For her part, Hillary Clinton outlined her views on transgender rights in her LGBT policy platform documenting her campaign late last year. Under a section devoted to protecting transgender rights, the platform says Clinton will seek to protect transgender people from violence, streamline identity documents and invest in law enforcement training on interactions with LGBT people.
Over the weekend in New Hampshire, when a college student asked her about gay rights, Clinton addressed the level of violence faced by transgender people, calling it a “terrible problem.”
In an interview with the Washington Blade last year, Bernard Sanders said he’d make a point of including transgender people in his policies and said America’s police should be better educated to address transgender violence.
“The point is we need to make sure that police departments are sensitive to the fact that every person in this country — man, woman, transgender, whatever you may be — is entitled to equal protection under the law, and abusing people is not acceptable,” Sanders said.
In 2009, when Democrats controlled the New Hampshire Legislature and the governor’s mansion, efforts began to pass a transgender rights bill.
An advocate working to pass the bill, Cannon recalled the legislature “came very close” to making it happen. When the bill passed in the House, Cannon said the speaker at the time, Terie Norelli, took the unusual step of coming down from the podium to vote on the bill.
But in addition to “outside forces” working against the bill, Norelli said the transgender bill ultimately didn’t pass because it was competing with another LGBT initiative: same-sex marriage.
“At the same time, we had marriage on the table, so they picked up the lesser of two evils in many ways,” Cannon said. “I spoke out on same-sex marriage at the same time. I was part of Freedom to Marry. That bill went through, but the transgender issue was left behind.”
Now, Cannon said trans advocates are shooting for 2017 to pass transgender protections in the state and, in the meantime, are working on advancing them in localities.
“Our current legislature is so Republican and against it, we know that it wouldn’t go through right now,” Cannon said.
Janson Wu, executive director of the New England-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said the time has come for New Hampshire to add statutory gender identity to current law.
“New Hampshire is the only New England state that does not have any explicit protections for gender identity and expression,” Wu said. “That’s a problem, because it sends a message that it’s OK to discriminate against trans people. While there is both federal and New Hampshire state case law finding protections for trans people under other statutes, that does not obviate New Hampshire’ Legislature from the responsibility of protecting its trans citizens from discrimination.”
A Sanders supporter, Cannon said she spoke about transgender issues during the 2016 election with Martin O’Malley, describing him as “very supportive of transgender people.” But he’s since dropped out of the race. Cannon said she hasn’t yet had an opportunity to speak with Sanders or Clinton.
In 2007, Cannon said she had the chance to talk with then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama about transgender issues, which she said he referred to at the time as “a state issue.”
“Now, he’s learned a lot in the past few years,” Cannon said. “I think all the candidates should learn more about the transgender community to realize that we are people, we are American citizens just like everyone else.”