Human Rights Commission Director: Transgender Bill Is Right For N.H.

Mar 8, 2017

Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

House lawmakers are considering a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. A vote could come during today’s full House session.

But what do we know about what legal protections are already in place for New Hampshire’s transgender community?

Joni Esperian, executive director of the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights, joined NHPR's Morning Edition to talk about the issue.


Can you explain what the commission does?

We were created in 1965 to investigate claims of discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on account of, and this has evolved over the years, the protected classes:  age, sex, sexual orientation, race, color, religion, marital status, familial status, physical or mental disability, and national origin.

What has the commission seen in terms of complaints filed specifically relating to issues of transgender people who claim they’ve been discriminated against?

I looked back at our statistics over state fiscal year 2010 through the fiscal year that just ended 2016, and we had three charged filings during that time period.

How would this proposed law change how transgender people are protected in the state?

Our commission, our commissioners think that this is an excellent idea, for two reasons. One, by placing this gender identity protected class into the statutory language itself, it makes everything very clear to call concerned; not only to the transgendered community, but to lawyers and judges. And the reason I say that is that our current authority for taking transgender cases derives from a 30-year-old Superior Court decision. So for example, if someone is transgendered and believes they have been discriminated against, if they were to look at our website, or look at our statute, it would be difficult for them to find the source of that authority. They’d have to look at our decisions from 30 years ago, read through it, and you might have to be a lawyer to understand that in 1988 in a Superior Court decision, the commission was told this is part of our jurisdiction.

So current policy comes from a court decision, it doesn’t come from a statute?

My concern and the concern of the commissioners is that the language is in the statute so that the community of transgendered people knows that there is protection for them.

  That’s correct, and as you probably know, statutory language is more forceful than a Superior Court decision. It has more authority.

Is it fair to say transgender people who are discriminated against would have a stronger case in court if this language were to be added?

That probably is true. My concern and the concern of the commissioners is that the language is in the statute so that the community of transgendered people knows that there is protection for them.

We’ve heard a lot about your commission in the debate over this bill. We spoke with a Republican lawmaker yesterday, Rep. Jess Edwards of Auburn, who argues the bill is unnecessary because your commission is already available to transgender people.

Is that a fair argument?

I have spoken with Rep. Edwards and I understand his view and I respect his view that we shouldn’t have to keep naming categories of protection or if we do, we should do it all at once. But the legislators who sponsored this bill decided that it was going to be this category of protected persons that they were writing the legislation for. And that is not for me to say whether it’s right or it’s wrong. I think Rep. Edwards believes as I do that we should live in a society where there’s no discrimination and that’s certainly a shared goal that I have with him. Unfortunately, we still need the legal protection for the times when that doesn’t happen.

So you support the bill?

The commission most definitely supports the bill. Our chair provided testimony to the committee to that effect. All of the commissioners at their meeting decided and voted 100 percent in favor of having our chair provide testimony in favor of the bill, and he did so.

Do you see any danger in this bill at all, any unforeseen implications?

I think there will be a need for dialogue and I very much want that to happen because I think there’s a lot of concern and fear. There needs to be education, there needs to be…those fears need to be articulated, and questions – whether it’s business owners or employers or housing providers – have, that needs to be discussed. And I think the commission can help that process.