For new Concord lawmaker, ‘parental bill of rights’ was personal fight

  • James Roesener of Concord became the first openly male transgender legislator in the nation when he was elected in New Hampshire this fall. Adrienne Catanese / Courtesy

  • James Roesener was the first openly male transgender legislator in the nation when he was elected in New Hampshire this fall. He lives in Concord with his wife and cat, Sparta. Adrienne Catanese—Courtesy

  • James Roesener was the first openly male transgender legislator in the nation when he was elected in New Hampshire this fall. He lives in Concord with his wife and cat, Sparta. Adrienne Catanese—Courtesy

  • Early into his first term, James Roesener learned his way around the State House. Adrienne Catanese / Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 3/25/2023 4:13:24 PM

James Roesener was 12 years old when he learned what the word transgender meant.

“I wish I could do that. That’s so lucky,” he thought. He knew, growing up, he didn’t identify with being a girl. And throughout high school at Merrimack Valley, he knew he wanted to transition to being James and identifying as a man.

It was a period of stress, isolation and, at times, suicidal thoughts. It wasn’t until he graduated from high school that he felt free enough to show his true self.

Back then in 2014, knowledge about being transgender, and even public discourse, was rare.

Now, with the modern-era culture wars over transgender affirmation and parental rights to know about a child’s gender expression in school, Roesener can’t fathom what students today go through.

“In reflecting on my childhood, I don’t understand how I got through that. That level of stress is so incredibly excruciating,” he said. “So the reality of that today, I can’t even. The strength that transgender kids have is unfathomable.”

He recalls years of others telling him it would get better – words that became so hollow with no exact date in sight as to when he would feel more content. But over time his feelings did change, and this fall, Roesener made history as the first openly transgender man elected to state office in the country.

Roesener, who is a Concord Democrat, has a seat in the House of Representatives as debates over transgender rights play out. Just this week, the House rejected an amendment to the “parental bill of rights” that would have required schools to inform parents about their gender preferences. It’s a fight he knew would come and one he ran for office to confront.

And at a time when the national political climate has a heightened focus on gender expression – from bathrooms to banning library books – he sees it as is yet another, but not surprising, attack on the transgender community.

“I don’t see that initiative going away anytime soon, which is a big part of why I wanted to run, because these bills are close,” he said in November, after his election.

First-year lawmaker

When Roesener pauses to think, there’s a lot to celebrate in the State House for the first-year legislator. This week alone, the House passed a bill that would enshrine the right to an abortion after 24 weeks in state law and another proposal to repeal the criminal and civil penalties associated with the current state abortion ban while also defeating several bills that would further erode access to abortion.

On the Fish and Game Committee – the only committee Roesener sits on – the sole bill representatives heard was about scuba diving licenses and lobster traps and it led to a marathon two-day session.

He’s finally learned to navigate the State House and Legislative Office Building, thanks to the help of a few staffers who’ve pointed him in the right direction.

And while Roesener was the first openly male transgender lawmaker elected, he isn’t the only transgender representative in the New Hampshire State House.

Last week, he stood with Gerri Cannon, a Somersworth Democrat, and Alissandra Murray, a Manchester Democrat, on the House floor as Cannon gave a speech for Trans Day of Visibility.

“It was a really beautiful moment,” he said. “I am very lucky to be in a body of representatives where I am not the only trans person. You know, that’s not often the case.”

While Roesener has transgender colleagues and other representatives who advocate on behalf of their rights, another subset of the legislative body has an agenda that threatens to out trans students against their will, he said.

‘Parental Bill of Rights’

The “parental bill of rights” laid out a laundry list of affirmations for parents throughout the state, like the right to enroll their child in gifted or special education programs or request that a student’s information is not shared with military recruiters. These are points that Roesener agrees with.

But couched in between rights about health care and access to education lies one line with consequences that many don’t seem to understand, said Roesener – the right to be informed if a child has changed gender pronouns since enrolling in school.

It’s a suggestion that isn’t new to the legislature. Last year, the House rejected a similar bill on a narrow vote. And as a transgender person in the United States right now, it’s one of four topics – along with gender-affirming care, book bans and bathroom bans – that float through state legislatures across the country.

“Unfortunately, we’re going to keep seeing the same sentiment trying to be passed under new faces and new names,” he said. “This was a fully anticipated bill to continue to be brought up until this culture war has fizzled out. I know that my community knows that. If it was not this bill, it would be something else.”

The legislation itself was nine pages long, without the amendment that included provisions for transgender students. With this addition, the page count increased to 17 with the clause about gender identity buried deep within dense, inaccessible jargon, said Roesener.

“It is very frustrating, as a trans person, to see a bill that covers a wide variety of different things under a big blanket area of a subject, which is parental rights and the school system,” he said. “All of this extra stuff, all of these other points in this bill, served to couch the initial reason that everyone is talking about this bill. And to me, what I have seen to be cited as the core reason so many people supported this bill, which was to forcibly out transgender students to their parents.”

For any teenager, not just transgender students, self-expression can be a crucial part of growing up, he said. This bill would have taken that right away, at what could be their most vulnerable time.

“The fact that gender expression is now politicized does not remove that from being a completely healthy and necessary part of a person’s expression,” he said.

For a bill with a core aim to help parents protect their children, its opponents saw detrimental consequences. The amendment was defeated 190-194.

“We know that even the introduction of a bill like this leads to increased calls to crisis hotlines by students. We know that this leads to higher rates of depression and suicidal ideation,” he said. “For a bill that claims to want to be protective of our children and our students’ well-being, I think it fails in many ways because it ignores the voices of those children and the needs of those children as they exist in reality.”

Reaffirming support

While these debates fall in line with national discourse – the U.S. House of Representatives passed a parental rights bill on Friday, though it did not include outing students – Roesener feels that these efforts are led by a small, but vocal, minority.

It makes reaffirming support for transgender people all that more important, he said – whether it comes from other representatives, neighbors or local businesses.

“Even simple gestures of acceptance and camaraderie really go a long way. It shows to the people who are struggling under this repression that the world does not all agree,” he said. “That there are safe people and safe places to be.”

A walk down Main Street in Concord reaffirms this for Roesener. The Equality Health Center on South Main St. has long been a safe space and community for him. He’s volunteered there for years, and it’s also where he gets his hormones.

And as he ventures towards the State House, Teatotaller is now a place that provides that same support. The queer-owned cafe is much more than that – providing a gathering space and LGBTQ presence downtown.

“Main Street in specific is just brimming with really supportive, amazing places,” he said. “Even to this day, walking down the street and seeing a pride flag in a window of a business is like a breath of fresh air. It’s like I can let my guard down a little bit.”

Even many churches in Concord are open and affirming, he said.

This support is crucial for a person transitioning as an adult or a teenager questioning their gender identity. And often it can be a vital lifeline.

“Being able to be referred to as a chosen name or certain pronouns are being recognized in the ways that feel congruent in school spaces is a life-affirming practice for students who are transgender,” he said. “It is so liberating, really, and that is a message I wish I could convey to my past self.”


Michaela Towfighi is a Report for America corps member covering the Two New Hampshires for the Monitor. She graduated from Duke University with a degree in public policy and journalism and media studies in 2022. At Duke she covered education, COVID-19, the 2020 election and helped edit stories about the Durham County Courthouse for The 9th Street Journal and the triangle area's alt-weekly Indy Week. Her story about a family grappling with a delayed trial for a fatal car accident in Concord won first place in Duke’s Melcher Family Award for Excellence in Journalism. Towfighi is an American expat who calls London, England, home despite being born in Boston.

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