New Hampshire sheds conservative reputation

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Thursday April 23, 2009

Erica Morin and Shelby Wozmak met in a hallway at Manchester Memorial High School in 2006. The couple described this moment as "love at first sight" on Facebook, and joked they are "more in love than Brangelina." And their classmates even voted Morin and Wozmak best couple in the yearbook.

"It is a complete honor knowing our classmates accept us as equally as any heterosexual couple," Wozmak told EDGE in an e-mail. "It feels great to know that people's opinion about same-sex couples are changing."

Morin and Wozmak's selection is the latest in a series of events to indicate New Hampshire continues to shed its conservative reputation. The state's civil unions bill became law in Jan. 2008. And the New Hampshire House recently passed two bills (House Bill 415, House Bill 436) that would add gender identity and expression to the state's anti-discrimination laws and allow same-sex couples to marry.

Openly gay Episcopal New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson was among those who testified in support of HB 436 at a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last Wednesday in Concord. Several hundred people attended the annual Pancake Breakfast at UNH earlier in the day. And Heather Barber, co-chair of the UNH President's Commission on the Status of GLBT Issues, quickly noted the coincidence.

"Forty miles away, hearings will soon begin on a marriage equality bill," she said. "It is coming."

UNH students, faculty and staff continue to play an instrumental role in increasing the visibility of LGBT Granite Staters and advancing LGBT-specific legislation in Concord. Former Gov. Meldrim Thompson famously refused to meet with a group of gay students in 1974 after they successfully raised $2,000 to have an auctioned pancake breakfast. And he also threatened to withhold UNH's state funding after the Gay Students Organization held a dance and staged a play on the Durham campus.

The university adopted domestic partner benefits in 1998 and added gender identity and expression to its non-discrimination policies in 2005.

Student Bekah Hawley, who grew-up in Derry, told EDGE she feels local activists have grown more organized in recent years.

"Between same-sex states like Massachusetts and Vermont, we are beginning to broaden our horizons."

"There's movement within the queer community in New Hampshire and more emphasis of the queer youth in New Hampshire engaging for equality in New Hampshire," she said. "The legislature is beginning to listen to that."

Openly gay state Rep. Bob Thompson [D-Manchester] credited younger Granite Staters and the continued influx of Massachusetts residents into the Merrimack Valley and adjacent Rockingham County for the change in attitude. He further noted the majority of his constituents support both HB 415 and HB 436.

"I can probably count on one hand-10 people combined-who've contacted me in opposition to both of these bills," Thompson said.

Bishop John McCormick of the Diocese of Manchester, Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta and the conservative Union Leader newspaper are among the more vocal opponents of marriage for same-sex couples and HB 415, but Mo Baxley, executive director of the New Hampshire Freedom to Marry Coalition, described the state's increasingly progressive politics as "not so outlandish."

"New Hampshire was seen as conservative when it really wasn't," she said. "We were really a socially progressive state and fiscally conservative."

As lawmakers in Concord continue to debate marriage and trans rights, Morin and Wozmak are preparing to graduate in June. They will attend separate colleges in Newton, Mass., in the fall, but Morin said she expects New Hampshire will continue to become a more progressive state.

"Being gay or a lesbian is becoming more of society's "norm," she said. "Sitting between same-sex states like Massachusetts and Vermont, we are beginning to broaden our horizons."

Editor's note: Michael K. Lavers is an alum of both Manchester Memorial High School and the University of New Hampshire.

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.