House lawmakers are to set to vote on a bill this week that would add gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
New Hampshire would join at least 18 other states – including all of New England – in explicitly prohibiting discrimination against transgender people when it comes to employment, housing and public accommodations.
The bill passed out of committee on a 15-2 bipartisan vote last month, but one member of that committee who voted for the bill now says he’s changed his mind.
Jess Edwards is a Republican state representative from Auburn. He originally voted in support of the bill in committee, but now says he’ll vote to table the bill when it comes before the House.
He joined NHPR's Morning Edition.
You initially supported this bill. What changed your mind?
I supported the bill on the basis of my belief that nondiscrimination is a great and attainable societal goal and I believed that the community of transgendered individuals are deserving of respect in our society. The hearing about four-and-a-half hours long, about 75 people testified, and it validated to a very large extent the intent of why this law has some morality behind it.
What the hearing wasn’t very good at doing was getting experts before us to testify about the law and the impact of the law and the legal environment in which this law is being introduced. Specifically, no one talked about the New Hampshire constitution and the Bill of Rights, Articles 1 and 2, already acknowledge we have a natural right to exist in this society. And also the Commission on Human Rights here in New Hampshire has for 30 years has been able to hear transgender cases, and only heard one 30 years ago and it was settled out of court. So there’s no evidence using New Hampshire’s current mechanisms for dealing with discrimination to find that there’s a large need for this bill.
During a hearing on this bill, there were several transgender people who testified about situations when they say they were discriminated against or harassed. What’s your message to them?
My message to them is they have constitutionally protected rights here in New Hampshire and they have the New Hampshire Commission on Human Rights and if they believe they’ve been discriminated against, I would urge them to go and talk to an investigator with the Commission on Human Rights and let them system that’s already in place attempt to work on their behalf. As I said before, it’s kind of redundant in the sense that much of the mechanisms for enforcement for adults is already in place and there are no cases in front of the Commission on Human Rights related to transgender discrimination. There just isn’t data to back up that there’s discrimination taking place in the adult community.
Couldn’t you make the argument that a lot of transgender people who may experience that discrimination are frankly afraid to come out and talk about that?
I’m not willing to assume that because somebody’s transgendered that they’re incapable adults and aren’t able to engage the legal and political structure that’s in place. In our testimony for example, over four and a half hours, probably 30-1 was in favor of the law, and quite impassioned. So I don’t care to assume that transgendered people are somehow less capable of engaging the legal structures that are in place.
The Business and Industry Association is backing this bill, saying there is strong support from businesses across the state for this.
So you prove my point. Society is moving. When the business community comes out and says they’re in support of it, to me that indicates they’re already moving in this direction without the law being in place.
But you’re against it. Every other New England state includes gender identity in their anti-discrimination laws. Does this put us at a competitive disadvantage, business wise?
I don’t think so. I think the number of people who are being affected negatively by this is really very small and those affected by it already have substantial legal recourse by filing complaints with the New Hampshire Commission on Human Rights.
What about from a PR standpoint for the state?
Well, from a PR perspective, I see that there’s tremendous amount of political partisanship around this and that’s driving a lot of negative messaging. I think there’s a lot of fear mongering on both sides of the issue and if we were to just calmly take a look at the situation I think we would find the New Hampshire constitution and the New Hampshire Commission on Human Rights are already there to protect every class of citizen in New Hampshire. We should confidently be able to say New Hampshire does not discriminate. We’ve got a constitution that says we don’t and we have a Commission on Human Rights in place that has not heard but one case in 30 years, so there is just no evidence. Now, people can make up stories for political partisan gain, but I really think that if you want to make policy and politics, the policy is already in place.
Are you saying some transgender people at the hearing were making up those stories?
No. Why would you conclude that? That’s not at all what I said. That’s nowhere near what I said. What I said before is that we have a New Hampshire Commission on Human Rights that’s in place and has hired and trained qualified investigators who are able to take complaints and to fully investigate them with all parties involved and get to a good resolution. So that’s what I said what I would like you to hear. I’m not throwing doubt on any people in the testimony.