NH's Rainbow City

Somersworth known for LGBTQ acceptance and leadership

Somersworth Mayor, Dana Hilliard recites a speech at Citizen's Place and raises the rainbow flag celebrating Diversity Month and recognizing the LGBT community.

Somersworth, population 11,900, may be one of the smallest cities in New Hampshire, but it's big on something that is sometimes in short supply even in supposedly more sophisticated, urban communities of the Northeast.

There is wide acceptance here of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning people, according to many who live and work in what is lovingly known as the Hilltop City. Nicknamed for the city's historic residential area that sits on a steep hill just off the downtown, Somersworth is just 10 square miles, but it's taking on a much bigger profile these days as a place of comfort for the LGBTQ community.

Take Emmett Soldati for example. Soldati, 30, owns Teatotaller at 69 High St. in the heart of the downtown. Teatotaller's YELP description is one Soldati and his team took to heart, as "an oasis of queer, hipster, tea, coffee, and pastry goodness. Loose-leaf tea, crafted espresso beverages, edibles and more."

In addition to tea, breakfast foods, sandwiches, sweets and other fare, Teatotaller is serving up plenty of events and advocacy for the LGBTQ community. The café hosts drag shows, drag bingo and discussion nights like "Ask a Trans Person Anything." That event was held partially to bolster support for state legislation passed last May for transgender rights.

Teatotaller doesn't shrink from controversy. The cafe has had a series of provocative billboards on West High Street including one with a male model wearing makeup with the words "Chai Curious?" written in huge letters. The billboard was egged once, but generally, Soldati said, he has received a lot of positive feedback.

Soldati, a Somersworth native who describes himself as a "decidedly queer" businessperson living in the community, said the city is a most accepting place. It's not like Provincetown, the gay mecca at the tip of Cape Cod. There's not a rainbow flag in the window of every Somersworth business or gay pride marches in the streets, but there is a kind of quiet acceptance and respect for all people in this small, close-knit community, Soldati said.

And, it's more than a feeling of acceptance. There are actual quantifiable indicators, according to Soldati. Somersworth has an openly gay mayor; several openly gay City Council members and is home to Gerri Cannon, a school board member, who also happens to be the leading transgender activist in the state. Cannon was one of only seven transgender candidates across the country to be elected to public office in 2017, according to NBC News, having been elected to the Somersworth School Board. On Nov. 6, 2018, Cannon was elected as a state representative to serve in the New Hampshire House, making history again as part of what some called a Rainbow Wave in midterm elections.

Soldati said the list of LGBTQ people in highly visible leadership roles in the community is the quantifiable part of the equation, but there's more to this story of tolerance and acceptance. Regular folks — townies and church-goers alike — have opened their minds and hearts to differences in sexual identity, he said.

That's the surprising part for Soldati and others who grew up here — the level of acceptance for the LGBTQ community in a city that has deep Roman Catholic and working class roots, first as a center for textile manufacturing and later shoe factories and the General Electric Company, which used to have 4,000 people working in the plant that dominated the downtown.

Those industries are gone now, and the city is in the process of rebuilding and reinventing itself as it celebrates its 125th anniversary of incorporation as a city this year. Dana Hilliard, Somersworth's openly gay mayor, who is also principal of Somersworth Middle School, often repeats the same mantra in speeches: "10 square miles, on the move, our future is now."

Somersworth Economic Development Director Robin Comstock sees Somersworth's diversity and openness as a great strength. "It makes the community enormously exciting. All people are welcome in Somersworth," she said, noting it creates an atmosphere where arts and business communities thrive.

"The shepherds of the city are very progressive and creative and tremendously smart and experienced," Comstock said, traits that are attracting businesses and spurring revitalization.

In his inaugural speech earlier this year, Hilliard spoke about the city's working class roots and its efforts to move forward. "Our hibernation, our darkest hours are now over. ... We've embarked on embracing our history, our diversity and ourselves," Hilliard said.

Hilliard likes to tell an entertaining story of a local political win to show what the community stands for. As mayor, he introduced legislation to add sexual orientation to the city's discrimination code — the same type of protection state legislators approved in May.

Cannon had approached Hilliard about a transgender rights ordinance in Somersworth and Hilliard brought it forth during the Diversity and Tolerance Month the city celebrates each January.

Cannon showed up on the night the council was to vote on the ordinance. She brought a group of representatives from the transgender community and spoke passionately about the ordinance during the public comment period of the council meeting, Hilliard said. What happened next came as a complete shock to Cannon and the other transgender supporters at the meeting. Not one city councilor said a word against the ordinance and when Hilliard called for the vote, all nine councilors unanimously supported it.

After that vote, the council went on to other city business, including a 45-minute wrangle about curb cutting at a Cumberland Farms store.

Cannon couldn't believe it. Stunned and incredulous, she spoke to Hilliard after the meeting.

"What is this place?" she asked.

"What are you talking about?" asked a puzzled Hilliard.

"This city. What is this city?" Cannon answered.

"I'm not following you," Hilliard said.

"You pass without debate a bill that protects people like us — without debate — unilateral support, across the board, all nine city councilors vote yes, and then you debate the curb cutting at Cumberland Farms for 45 minutes," Cannon said.

Somersworth City Councilor Dale Sprague was listening to the conversation and gave Cannon the reason there was no discussion about transgender rights compared to hunks of concrete at Cumberland Farms: "Because we don't debate things that protect people here. We debate curb cuttings."

For Hilliard, that summed up perfectly what the community is all about.

Next story: How immigrants and adversity helped create a welcoming city.