People Have Been Fighting Over Transgender Access To Bathrooms For Years New Hampshire was the site of one of the first legislative battle grounds over transgender rights.

Before North Carolina, There Were Other Contentious 'Bathroom Bill' Fights

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The governors of at least 12 states announced that they would sue the Obama administration this week over its directive that allows transgender students to use school bathrooms of their choice.

This political fight was ignited by North Carolina's recent law that requires people to use bathrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate. But this debate is not new, and it didn't begin in North Carolina. New Hampshire Public Radio's Brady Carlson reports.

BRADY CARLSON, BYLINE: Seven years ago, New Hampshire debated one of the very first so-called bathroom bills. That measure wasn't about bathrooms at all, at least at first.

ED BUTLER: It was a really very simple extension of nondiscrimination protection to a class that isn't covered and needs to be covered.

CARLSON: That's State Representative Ed Butler. In 2009, he proposed New Hampshire expand its anti-discrimination laws to include gender identity and expression. He thought it would help address transgender citizens' concerns about housing, employment, even physical safety. Suffice to say, that's not how the debate played out.

BUTLER: After the public hearings, the issue of bathrooms became the core of the opposition.

CARLSON: Activist Anne Marie Banfield was one of those who opposed Butler's bill.

ANNE MARIE BANFIELD: When you're talking about opening up restrooms in schools and in public places, it is just uncomfortable, unnatural and unwelcoming to many women and girls out there.

CARLSON: Rhetoric about bathrooms wasn't new. Gay rights opponents used similar language in the 1970s. What was new though was the phrase bathroom bill, which social conservatives had also used the year before against a similar measure in Colorado that became law. Amy Stone teaches sociology and anthropology at Trinity University in Texas. She says those two words, bathroom bill, became an effective shorthand for opponents.

AMY STONE: Very few people would argue that they want a man in a girls' bathroom, right? So it becomes really hard to counter some of them.

CARLSON: The phrase was headline-friendly too. Some local news media used it, which focused the debate even further on bathrooms and made it even more contentious. Here's New Hampshire State Representative Nancy Elliot speaking on House floor during the 2009 debate.

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NANCY ELLIOT: You could have a child molester decide that he was going to choose to be a woman for an occasion and go into the ladies' room where there were little girls.

CARLSON: LGBT supporters tried to push back. Gerri Cannon is a transgender woman from Somersworth who says she met with lawmakers every day to keep the bill moving forward.

GERRI CANNON: I'm tired of being called a child molester because I'm not. And I've never met a transgender person who is or has been. And I know that if I was in a bathroom and some pervert came in, he would be sorry about it.

CARLSON: The state House eventually passed the bill by a single vote, but the tide was turning. A month later, the state Senate voted unanimously to kill the bill. The Senate's LGBT supporters, like State Senator Jackie Cilley, put the blame squarely on the rhetoric over bathrooms and the media who repeated it.

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JACKIE CILLEY: I say you are not journalists. You have served merely as stenographers to ignorance, hatred and discrimination.

CARLSON: Ed Butler says the focus on bathrooms certainly didn't help his bill. And the fact that New Hampshire was also passing a marriage equality law at the time meant transgender rights became too much too soon for other lawmakers. But he says public attitudes are changing, calling his proposal a bathroom bill today just wouldn't work.

BUTLER: We have been going to the bathroom with transgender people for all of our lives. It hasn't been a problem. And I think people are starting to realize that.

CARLSON: That said, Butler notes there has been no attempt to add gender identity to New Hampshire's anti-discrimination law since the debate over the so-called bathroom bill of 2009. For NPR News, I'm Brady Carlson in Concord, N.H.

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