N.H. House tables bills that would repeal conversion therapy ban, bar trans students from sports
Abi Maxwell is tired of fighting perennial bills that would keep her trans daughter from playing sports with other girls, but she keeps speaking out against them for her daughter, who hopes to someday join a ski team.
“My daughter is a girl, she will not grow up to ski with the boys and to ask her to is an act of bullying and exclusion,” Maxwell said at a press event ahead of a House vote on House Bill 1180.
On Wednesday, House lawmakers voted, 175 to 167, in favor of tabling a bill that would put a biological definition of sex in state statute, to differentiate between the male and female sexes in athletic competitions at public schools, in prisons, and “places of intimate privacy,” like bathrooms. It’s not the only bill LGBTQ advocates are fighting this session. Another, House Bill 1077, would repeal New Hampshire’s ban on conversion therapy, which was signed into law in 2018. That bill, too, was tabled, 197 to 147, on Wednesday, a move that could be a win for opponents of the measure by next week when bills will require a two-thirds vote to be taken off the table and advanced.
If the bill does overcome that hurdle, it would make New Hampshire the first state to repeal such a ban on discredited therapies to change a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. The practice is currently banned in 20 states. But advocates of LGBTQ rights are counting the votes to table as a win for now.
Both bills came to the House floor with the committee’s recommendation that they pass as the issues gain national attention from legislation in places like Texas and Florida. HB 1077 has gained the support of lawmakers who point to an amendment that requires a client’s consent – consent trans advocates say youth cannot legally give. “It creates a loophole for guardians to endanger youth with discredited therapy practices,” said Palana Hunt-Hawkins, who previously worked as a trans justice organizer with the ACLU of New Hampshire.
Maxwell said she lives in fear of New Hampshire passing a law that would require her to move out of the state, like a bill that would’ve blocked her daughter’s access to gender-affirming medical care last year. If something like that became law, she would leave the state even though it’s where she grew up and her family has been here for generations. That fear isn’t just hypothetical. Maxwell has already moved within the state once, relocating to Concord because of the bullying her daughter faced in a more conservative community. But Maxwell thinks bills like this wouldn’t succeed if lawmakers actually met children like Frida and better understood them.
“These are harmless humans,” Maxwell said. “And if you knew anything about their story, you would support them.”
Frida is 9 now; it’s been three years since she socially transitioned, changing her name and pronouns. Even before that, Frida presented as female, wearing dresses and pink sneakers. Maxwell had no familiarity with trans issues before her daughter started telling her she was a girl. At first, Maxwell and her husband didn’t get it. They were scared and hesitant, but when they saw Frida’s mental health suffering they decided they needed to learn more and act.
Abi Maxwell is the mother of 9-year-old Frida. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)
At school, it was Frida who led the transition, telling peers that she was a girl and that she was going to find a new name. Once her parents were on board, Maxwell saw the difference immediately. “It was like a light came on inside of her overnight,” Maxwell said. Frida’s happiness, general sense of calm, and well-being were all improved.
But the transition wasn’t easy. Frida was bullied at school, and Maxwell described hate speech at school board meetings, eventually leading to the involvement of both the ACLU and GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD. Maxwell said Frida’s school in Concord has been better, but the statewide legislation remains a concern for both mother and daughter. Maxwell would rather leave the state than tell Frida she couldn’t play on a sports team. “I don’t think we would feel safe raising her in a state that tells her that,” she said.
New Hampshire isn’t an exception but part of a national trend of legislation attempting to roll back protections around gender identity and sexual orientation, according to Casey Pick, who does advocacy work for The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focusing on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth.
“We are in the middle of a record-breaking year for legislation introduced across the country targeting the rights and really lives of LGBTQ young people,” Pick said. And laws like these have clear consequences when it comes to mental health and suicide, according to Pick, who pointed to a survey among young people who reported undergoing conversion therapy: Suicide attempts were more than twice as high as youth who had not undergone it.
“The passage of this bill would send the message that there’s something wrong with you, and when we think about proximate factors to suicide, that’s one of them,” said Harvey Feldman, a licensed clinical mental health provider in New Hampshire.
It isn’t entirely clear to advocates why this spate of legislation is happening now, but Chris Erchull, a staff attorney for GLAD, said in an interview that politicians are using trans rights as a political wedge issue. “Transgender youth make an attractive political wedge issue because they are vulnerable, because they are a small minority, and because they are stigmatized and badly misunderstood,” he said. “People are taking advantage of that to use it to drive political fights.”
Proponents of the sports legislation have defended it as an issue of fairness.
Rep. Linda Gould, a Bedford Republican and the prime sponsor of HB 1180, told lawmakers on the House Health and Human Services Committee that her bill is meant to protect women, whose athletic accomplishments would be diminished if they had to compete against those who are not “members of their own biological sex.”
Trans advocates say the law is discriminatory. “It draws a line around transgender people and signals that their gender identity is invalid,” Erchull said. And the bill amends the part of state law regulating driver’s licenses, which isn’t what governs who can join a particular sports team. Republicans pushing for the bill, however, said it would still be significant, pointing to recent case law that relies on a state definition of biologic sex in order to make these distinctions in sports or elsewhere.
For Maxwell, Frida’s mom, the bill is still a threat. And Frida agreed. “When people try to make laws saying I can’t play sports, I feel mad and scared,” Frida said at a press event. “I should be able to play on sports teams with other girls and be who I am. Playing sports makes me feel happy.”
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