This story is the first in an occasional series about the culture wars in New Hampshire. Ani Freedman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ANI FREEDMAN, InDepthNH.org
New Hampshire towns have become microcosms for nationwide culture wars. As controversial transgender legislation moves to the next Congressional session, concerns surface for LGBTQ+ rights here at home amid a backlash from people ideologically opposed to gender identity and sexual orientation changes in education and state policy.
Advocates, residents, and state Representatives in New Hampshire have noticed these tensions increasing in recent years. Ideological and political differences infiltrate House committee debates, school board and town council meetings, and social media.
Last month, Shana Aisenberg attended an event at the Wolfeboro Public Library, where de-transitioning advocate Katie Anderson was scheduled to speak. Aisenberg, a Music Director at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Eastern Slopes in New Hampshire, identifies as a transgender woman. She said she felt compelled to attend an event that counters her beliefs around being transgender.
Anderson has spoken around the country about her experience going through transgender care as a teenager, then choosing to transition back to her sex assigned at birth after seven years as a transgender male, according to her social media. She has been outspoken against what she calls “transgender ideology,” traveling throughout New Hampshire to Conway, Wolfeboro, Nashua, and Goffstown, as well as throughout the country, to tell her story.
Aisenberg planned to speak up during Anderson’s event in Wolfeboro to share a counternarrative from the transgender community. In 1993, Aisenberg transitioned from male to female, only to soon de-transition after experiencing discrimination and a denial of trans-affirming care. In 2012, she transitioned back to female, what she originally wanted to do.
“I de-transitioned, but I want people to know, it was not because of regret, it was because of discrimination and being denied the medical affirming care that I wanted,” Aisenberg said. “I wanted to counter that narrative of de-transitioners.”
Aisenberg said that what de-transition advocates like Anderson claim about mental health difficulties and regrets among the transgender community was not true. At the same time, she wanted to attend the event to witness and exchange opposing perspectives.
Aisenberg’s story was met with compassion and respect from Anderson, but she said she felt that the goal of the group there was legislative action.
“They want to deny the ability for kids or adults to receive trans-affirming care,” Aisenberg.
Anderson did not respond for comment.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community say they feel increasingly uncertain about being accepted in their communities, while fearing for the futures of LGBTQ+ youth as more bills crop up to restrict gender affirming care.
Linds Jakows, co-founder of the LGBTQ+ organization 603 Equality, fears for the safety and rights of transgender people in New Hampshire as these local tensions escalate.
“Trans women are women at the end of the day,” Jakows said. “You don’t need to perfectly understand or relate to a trans person to let them live their life and to understand that they deserve basic dignity and respect.”
Recently, state representatives on the Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs committee mirrored the clashes happening among their constituents as they debated three different bills affecting the transgender community in New Hampshire. As these bills were being written, edited, and proposed in Concord, the ideological tensions they represent have been becoming increasingly common elsewhere in the state.
“Around the country there are multiple bills ‘othering’ the transgender community and demonizing those who support them,” Nancy Brennan, an advocate with the Kent Street Human Rights Working Group, said in an email statement. “It is becoming dangerous in some places to be out as transgender or to seek health care.”
The parents and legislators supporting these bills in New Hampshire fear for children in a different way. Instead, they perceive protecting youth transgender care and education to be a threat to the wellbeing of children.
In Goffstown and Littleton, residents have been coming head-to-head regarding how to educate their children about gender identity and sexuality, as well as the representation of the LGBTQ+ community in their towns.
Recently, Republican State Senator Carrie Gendreau came forward to say she did not support LGBTQ+ art on Main Street in Littleton.
Meanwhile since August, Goffstown’s town councils have become centers for debate. Local members of the LGBTQ+ community are only getting more concerned as division becomes rampant on social media and during various town meetings.
“There’s been political discourse that’s been progressively worsening. Town offices are non-partisan in our town, and there are people trying to make that partisan,” said Pamela Boyer, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission in Goffstown. Boyer, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community and runs the LGBTQ+ Facebook page for Goffstown, was recently accused of violating the code of conduct of her Parks and Rec position for her social media activity and for messages sent to Rep. Joe Alexander, R-Hillsborough 29, back in May.
Alexander made the messages public via email and social media, in which Boyer referred to the death by suicide of an LGBTQ+ youth from Manchester. Boyer texted Alexander, “LGBTQ youth are not inherently prone to suicide risk because of their sexual orientation or gender identity but rather placed at higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized in society.”
“You may not ever have seen or spoken to (the youth who died by suicide), but your actions as well as your peers’ actions in the State House have social consequences that impacted (the youth’s) decision to commit suicide,” Boyer’s text to Alexander read.
Rep. Alexander called Boyer’s message “completely uncalled for and hateful” in a phone interview. He said that Boyer essentially blamed him for this young individual’s death and believed she was in violation of the code of conduct as an appointed member of the town commission.
Boyer denied that her text blamed Alexander for the suicide. The Select Board decided Boyer acted on her own behalf and not as a member of the Parks and Rec Commission. Her statements were thus labeled as free speech irrelevant to her position.
School board meetings in Goffstown have been some of the most explosive sites for the small-town culture wars as well. Goffstown resident Kerstie Hazelbaker’s daughter, Lily, was caught in the crossfire of the town’s disagreements involving a now-removed bulletin board with gender identity and sexual orientation materials. Hazelbaker said Lily identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
In September, Hazelbaker’s daughter was emailed along with other board members by school board member Dan Cloutier’s wife, Donna Pinard-Cloutier, who brought up previous communications between school board members about the LGBTQ+ controversies in August, Hazelbaker said over the phone. Hazelbaker said Lily was the only one called out by name in the email.
“It actually referred to an email [Lily] sent to the board as a student with her perspective on the book banning stuff that had gone on at the last meeting,” Hazelbaker said. She emailed Pinard-Cloutier back and told her not to contact her daughter.
Hazelbaker called for the censure of school board member Dan Cloutier at a school board meeting in October. She stated Cloutier violated RSA 91: A Right-to-Know law and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) when he shared board member emails and a minor’s personal information with his spouse.
Hazelbaker claimed that sharing this information led to online harassment and targeting on social media by Pinard-Cloutier. She said that Pinard-Cloutier mentioned Lily multiple times by name in posts tied to what Hazelbaker called “anti-LGBTQ” rhetoric.
“Lily is gay, but it didn’t have anything to do with her being gay,” Hazelbaker said. “What I was talking about was the privacy issue and the fact that he had released Lily’s information as a minor.”
Donna Pinard-Cloutier did not respond for comment.
Hazelbaker has lived with her family in Goffstown for over 10 years. She said the past three years have seen local divisions escalating.
“There’s some extreme thought going on in this town,” Hazelbaker said. “It’s getting worse.”
Goffstown resident Melanie Renfrew-Hebert, an active member of the LGBTQ+ community, said that before 2016, the town felt more united in working for the best interest of all, regardless of political affiliation.
“I don’t remember any of these heated name-calling things going on prior to 2016,” Renfrew-Hebert said. She said it’s only gotten worse since then—and Goffstown residents are getting tired of it.
“Everything became less kind, less participatory. We’re a small community so it’s really evident,” Renfrew-Hebert said.
As communities like Goffstown grapple with increasingly tense discourse, their frustrations are manifesting in legislation for the upcoming 2024 State House and Senate sessions. One of the most contentious bills is HB 619, which was debated at the Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs executive session on Nov. 13.
The bill restricts gender affirming care to transgender youth under the age of 18 and opens the definition of conversion therapy, specifying that gender transition care should not be included in conversion therapy. One of the bill’s biggest supporters is Rep. Seth King, R-Coos 4, who serves on the Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs committee.
In an email, King wrote, “The State has a compelling interest to protect the health and wellness of children. Because children are incapable of consent, they should not be given irreversible, so-called gender transitioning surgeries or drugs that they may later regret and could cause long-term negative health effects.”
Beyond HB 619, the Trans Legislation Tracker has flagged three other bills as possible threats to transgender rights. The first is HB 396, which states that “nothing in state law regarding birth records or motor vehicles is intended to prohibit a public entity from differentiating between male and female sexes or undermine the state’s rational interest in recognizing the male and female sexes.”
Rep. Jim Kofalt, R-Hillsborough 32, who is the main sponsor of the bill, clarified via email that this bill would not prohibit an individual from altering their birth record to reflect their current gender identity.
“It simply clarifies that political subdivisions of the state (e.g. school districts) may still make distinctions based on biological sex for the three categories specified in the bill, despite any such alteration in a person’s vital record,” Kofalt wrote.
Kofalt stated that there is nothing in the current law to prohibit “separate bathrooms, locker rooms, sports, and prisons based on biological sex,” but that there are certain groups who are claiming otherwise, putting school boards in a “precarious situation.”
“Many would like to maintain traditional division of bathrooms, locker rooms, and sporting competitions in order to safeguard the privacy and modesty of young students while also providing accommodations such as single-use bathrooms that would be available to anyone,” Kofalt said in the email. “HB 396 would clarify that school districts may establish policies (at their own discretion) that distinguish based on biological sex for bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports.”
“Nothing in HB 396 would compel school districts, prisons, towns, counties, etc. to set policies based on biological sex,” Kofalt wrote. “It would merely clarify that they are allowed to do so.”
There was also HB 417, which was killed, which would have included: “adds sexual reassignment to the definition of an abused child in RSA 169-C, the child protection act.” Unlike other bills, which usually have various co-sponsors, it only had one listed sponsor, Rep. Dave Testerman, R-Merrimack 3, who is also sponsoring the 15-day abortion ban bill.
The last piece of legislation that concerns trans-rights activists was SB 272, which was indefinitely postponed, would have established “a parents’ bill of rights in education, what constitutes a violation of such rights, and a mechanism to notify parents of their rights.”
Jakows and their fellow activists are most concerned about the following section of the bill, which states that parents would have the following rights:
“The right to inquire of the school or school personnel and to be truthfully and completely informed if their child is being identified by any name other than the name under which the child was enrolled in the school or any nickname that a reasonable person would understand to be commonly derived from such name, including under circumstances which a reasonable person would understand to be for the purpose of facilitating a change of gender or gender transition.
“The right to inquire of the school or school personnel and to be truthfully and completely informed if the child is being identified or referred to by school district staff, as being of a gender other than that of which the child was identified or referred when enrolled.
“The right to inquire of the school or school personnel and to be truthfully and completely informed if any school or school personnel are proceeding with any intervention to affirm or to provide an accommodation of a child’s asserted gender identity when the student’s gender identity is other than that of which the child was identified or referred when enrolled.
“The right to know what extracurricular activities, clubs, or organizations their child is participating in.”
Jakows said this bill would “explicitly target transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming students, and students who attend Gender Sexuality Alliance clubs.”
“I think the right is actively organizing and recycling a lot of language that’s been used in the past to demonize LGBTQ teachers and to say that they’re going to make kids LGBTQ, which is just not true,” Jakows said over the phone.
Several bills have been proposed that would combat what Jakows and others say are anti-trans pieces of legislation. One of these is HB 264, which would streamline the process to obtain a new birth certificate “to reflect a change in the individual’s gender upon receipt of a notarized certification by a licensed and qualified health care provider affirming the individual’s gender designation.”
Another bill that has garnered much support is HB 368, which “provides protections for persons receiving gender-affirming health care and gender-affirming mental health care.”
Such protections would include the right to privacy of medical information, preventing health care providers or services from releasing “medical information related to a person or entity allowing a child to receive gender-affirming health care or gender-affirming mental health care in response to any civil action,” such as a lawsuit.
It would also prohibit any medical information from being released in instances of civil action against an individual who allowed gender-affirming health or mental health care to be administered to a child, when another state’s law permits such civil action against the person who allowed that child to receive the care.
At the Nov. 13 executive session of the Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs commission, State Representatives debated about informed consent and the mental wellbeing of children as they discussed this bill—yet they weren’t even certain if such gender affirming care was occurring in New Hampshire.
“I very much feel like this has an effect on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of trans kids and nonbinary kids,” Shana Aisenberg said. “There’s legislation trying to not allow them to transition in school, or if they transition their parents are going to be notified.”
All of these bills will move to the full House session on January 4th to be heard and voted on by the entire legislature. With Republicans only holding the majority of the House by three seats, it will be a tight vote on culture wars legislation for New Hampshire.
“I fear a rise of fascism and authoritarianism in our country,” Aisenberg said. “At one point, I might’ve thought New Hampshire wouldn’t go that way.”
“I don’t know where things are going to go,” Aisenberg said. “I’m on alert. I need to be careful.”
While Aisenberg and her fellow advocates remain concerned about the future of LGBTQ+ rights in the state, she is hopeful with the amount of support they are getting from allies in and outside of the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’ve always seen people fighting for our rights, to gain our rights, and fighting to keep our rights,” Aisenberg said. “I am seeing the non-LGBTQIA+ community starting to step up more and really support.”