Q&A: A Transgender Woman and Her Non-Transgender Colleague Discuss Big New Hampshire Victory

Emmett Soldati & Palana Belken • Somersworth, NH

There’s still a lot of work to do in the fight to win LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections – but there’s also been a lot of recent momentum, including this year in New Hampshire, where a bipartisan legislature passed explicit, comprehensive protections after a years-long fight.

The campaign to pass these protections, Freedom New Hampshire, employed a variety of innovative strategies to raise community awareness about the issue, as well as increase knowledge among legislators across the state. One strategy was a series of panels called “Ask a Trans Person Anything,” where people would gather and pose questions to transgender people, in addition to hearing their stories and personal experiences with discrimination. Freedom for All Americans is proud to have served as a founding and leading member of Freedom New Hampshire.

A major gathering place for the campaign was the Teatotaller in Somersworth, NH, a café managed by Emmett Soldati and Palana Belken — Palana is a transgender woman, and Emmett is a non-transgender ally. During the campaign, the space served as a meeting point not only for the panels but for other educational events – as well as the major campaign victory party.

To celebrate the victory and recognize Labor Day – the first in New Hampshire where transgender people will be fully protected under state law from discrimination – read our interview with Emmett and Palana on their involvement in the campaign, how they feel about the victory, and why it’s so important for LGBTQ people to be protected from discrimination nationwide.

FFAA: Congratulations on the passage of the transgender protections bill in New Hampshire, and thank you for all you did to make it a reality! What was it like to see all of your hard work pay off this summer?

PALANA BELKEN: It was so amazing. Throughout the campaign, I loved the experience of seeing people all across the state come together and fight for something. Here at the shop, we hosted the trans talent show, we did an “Ask a Trans Person Anything” panel, and we did the victory party there. It was so cool to host all of these people who had worked hard on this.

Photo of the ‘Ask a Trans Person Anything’ Panel, By Jason Moon for NHPR

EMMETT SOLDATI: This entire year I felt sort of in a bubble! Here in Somersworth we know how open, affirming and accepting everyone is, so I felt strongly that the bill was going to pass. But I know that it has sometimes been hard for many people in communities across the state to see how accepting and progressive all of their neighbors were, and seeing the bill pass surely made a positive impact. In New Hampshire there is this quiet attitude of tolerance that you may not really see until you have an event like the one Lana hosted at the shop. Until you get neighbors to show up and raise the flag, until you have those moments in those spaces, you don’t realize how much on the same page so many folks are. From the business side of things, transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination protections have been something we have felt strongly about. And I know that when you have these values, you have to speak up about them. Your support for all people and opposition to discrimination can’t just be implicit. It has to be explicit.

PALANA: Yes, there’s definitely been an element of living out loud this year.

FFAA: It sounds like the Teatotaller is a great place to work with affirming staff that embraces people across the LGBTQ spectrum. What was it like to share with your colleagues that you are transgender, Lana?

PALANA:  When I was hired there, I was at a stage where I was in the middle of transitioning and in an androgynous phase. On my first day, I had a name that could swing in multiple ways, and at the end of the shift, I came out and said, “Oh I didn’t make this clear, but I’m trans and here is how I identify.” it was just a very simple moment, not a big, dramatic moment. Going into it, I wasn’t worried either, because I knew what the Teatotaller was like.

FFAA: That’s a fortunate position to be in! Of course, we know that not all LGBTQ people have that experience in the workplace. What kinds of stories did you hear from other transgender people who have experienced mistreatment at work?

PALANA: Definitely, not everyone’s experience is so pleasant. And even for me, before the job at Teatotaller, there was a weird friction, and there were some acknowledgement problems where I thought maybe I’d be out of a job.

There was one story told in the Freedom New Hampshire campaign by one person who worked somewhere that people were intentionally screwing up the pronouns. Management would not agree to call the person by their name, even though their legal name did not match the person they are. There were also just straight-up insults, aggression, petty garbage for no reason. Lots of people had stories similar to this.

Photo of the ‘Ask a Trans Person Anything’ Panel, Photo by Gerri Cannon

FFAA: Emmett, do you have any advice for employers who are struggling with being welcoming and inclusive to all people, including transgender workers? From your experience at the Teatotaller, what strategies have worked to create such an inclusive climate?

EMMETT: I will credit Lana with helping the staff a lot. Even if you have staff who are queer-identified or LGBTQ, it doesn’t mean they have literacy about all other identities. Much of our staff can explore and talk about and be comfortable thinking through these issues and identity, and Lana is a big reason for that.

From the business side of things, I also just want to say that if you look at any regional newspaper or business paper in New Hampshire, there’s one headline: Unemployment is so low, we’re at “full employment” that it’s so hard for employers to find skilled workers, a match of skills. And I will say, that Teatotaller has never had a problem hiring, and we have never had a problem finding really qualified, exceptional, talented people. It wasn’t by design initially (although maybe by now it is), but someone asked once, ‘Do you have to be gay or trans to work at Teatotaller?’ And of course you don’t. But there is some reputation for some people that we are embracing or accepting of people who may have previously faced discrimination. One of the best things for our business has been to be open and affirming and accepting, because it means we have an amazing talent pool that some other sectors of the economy don’t look upon favorably, especially when thinking about the trans community.

We get a lot of people who work with us who were previously dishwashers or worked in warehouses or worked third shift – these jobs that are part of an invisible economy, not service-oriented. And that’s a shame. Because there are so many people who have so many talents to bear. We don’t target trans or queer or LGBT folks specifically at Teatotaller (although I should note that we are always hiring!).

At the end of the day, discrimination is bad for business. It’s bad for business owners. So of course we are open and affirming for lots of moral and social reasons, but it’s also good for business.

FFAA: What message does it send for New Hampshire to pass transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination protections?

LANA: I think it’s amazing that this bill went through a Republican-majority House, Republican-majority Senate, and was signed by a Republican governor. It was cool to see that New Hampshire was able to send the message that the two sides are not that divided on this issue.

At the end of the day, discrimination is bad for business. It’s bad for business owners. So of course we are open and affirming for lots of moral and social reasons, but it’s also good for business. – Emmett Soldati

EMMETT: We had a mini victory party, and I heard a lot of stories particularly about employment, particularly from folks where their employer is providing their health insurance. And to have this double concern that they could lose their job and also lose their health insurance, I think that a lot of people wind up withstanding some ugliness, or insulting or poor responses from coworkers and other forms of discrimination just to hold onto their health care. Now, with the passage of the protections law, at the very least people can feel secure in their job and in many cases their health security.

FFAA: As you know, a majority of states still don’t have state-level laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Why should all states, and ultimately the federal government, take New Hampshire’s lead and pass these protections?

EMMETT: I think last year when news broke about the anti-transgender military ban and even a lot of conservatives spoke out against it, their logic was the perfect example for why we need protections like these. They said, “If someone can serve their country, why are we bringing in this ugly, arcane form of discrimination?” They understood that if someone is providing a benefit and they are not harming anyone else’s freedoms, why are we hurting their freedoms? It’s similar to business, I think. The message translates. Wouldn’t it be better for folks to say, ‘How can we provide a better, non-hostile work environment?’ If someone’s natural instinct, even if they’re in a position of power, is to not ask questions or check their assumptions (and knowing that we’re not expecting everyone to change their mind overnight), we do need something in place for that individual to be a check on someone’s arbitrary prejudice out of lack of knowledge, ignorance.

LANA: The big thing is that these protections pose no threat. There are so many statistics on what the difference is between these laws being in place and not being in place. There’s no abuse of it. Sure, these protections shouldn’t need to be in place – because people shouldn’t be discriminating against other people. But because of our history and the fact that discrimination like this happens so frequently, the protections need to be there. And I’m glad they are here in New Hampshire.



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