Gerri Cannon loves living in Somersworth. She is an activist for transgender rights and a Somersworth School Board member who was elected this year to the New Hampshire House. Her Facebook page says, "I'm a Confident Transgender Advocate, using my voice to help others." [Deb Cram/]

Transgender pioneer loves life in Somersworth

Gerri Cannon making an impact in hometown and New Hampshire House

Gerri Cannon is an attractive, pleasant middle-aged woman. She wears glasses and her brown hair is styled in a chic, simple chin-length bob.

And on those occasions when she's dressed up or taking a formal portrait, she likes to wear a bit of red lipstick.

The groundbreaking part of Cannon's story is that she is transgender and made headlines for being one of just seven transgender candidates to win election in the country in 2017. Cannon, 65, won election to the Somersworth School Board that year by just six votes and is now on the budget and negotiations committees, two of what she calls the toughest areas to serve. She's proud people have faith in her and credits her diligence, preparation for meetings, listening to people and educating herself about issues.

And she didn't stop there. Cannon, a Democrat, was recently elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives and will serve District 18, which encompasses Somersworth and Rollinsford.

Cannon's political career was ignited 10 years ago by the fight for transgender equality in New Hampshire. She said it was gratifying to see the transgender bill become law during the most recent session with a Republican majority in the Legislature and a Republican governor. "We made our case. We showed people that transgender people are real. We are not weird. We are just who we are and we need the same rights as everyone else. And they saw it!"

Cannon believes state government needs to work with cities and towns to provide services and stay out of people's private business. "I get frustrated when people start to get into our personal lives. Why are you messing around in there?" she said.

Cannon plans to fight for school funding when she starts serving her term in January. She also plans to explore several other what she calls "hot button" issues at the State House, including medical coverage, job growth and "getting this community regenerated," referring to her adopted hometown. Cannon describes Somersworth as energetic and progressive.

"People are really interested in Somersworth," Cannon said, "and that's exciting."

Cannon describes the city as welcoming to the LGBTQ community. "For me, Somersworth has been pretty open-minded. I get around and I'm happy everywhere I go." Cannon feels at home in Somersworth's shops, restaurants and City Hall where residents know and accept her. "I always have a smile on my face and I treat people with respect. And if I know somebody, I give them a hug," she said.

Cannon is also accepted at church, the First Parish Church of Christ Congregational at 176 West High St., which is an open and affirming faith community that flies the rainbow flag outside. "I have a lot of people at church that have no problem chatting with me because we care about each other as family. They are family. When they are down, I'm down. When I'm down, they're down," Cannon said.

Somersworth, the former home to a large General Electric meter manufacturing facility and multiple shoe factories, is still largely a blue-collar community, but doesn't reflect the stereotype that is sometimes associated with such places, Cannon said. According to her, there is openness and tolerance that gives one of the smallest cities in New Hampshire a friendly atmosphere. "I think Somersworth is a very diverse city. We have one of the largest Indonesian populations north of New York City. I have an Indian couple as neighbors and I have a Korean family across the street, I have a Polish fellow and his French wife next door."

Cannon said Somersworth residents are used to seeing diversity. "It's wonderful. It doesn't matter what nationality people are. They are just trying to live their lives. You treat them with respect and they respond in kind."

Cannon used to live in Merrimack and describes it as "a pretty good town." But, unlike Somersworth, residents there were more cautious and tentative toward her, she said.

That's not to say she hasn't suffered some incidents of prejudice in her new hometown. Last summer, an older model pickup truck drove past her house as she was standing outside. The truck slowed down and the passenger — a man in his 20s or early 30s — yelled out, "Faggot!"

Cannon took the ugly incident in stride. "Although the community is open, there are individuals who still need to grow up and realize that our world — especially here in Somersworth — is incredibly diverse and you've got to get used to it. We aren't dangerous," Cannon said.

There was also some ugliness in 2017 after her historic election to the Somersworth School Board. The fact that she is transgender never came up during election season, but after her victory there were some "very tough comments" online, Cannon said. Some of those comments were bad enough to prompt Cannon to become a handgun owner. "I'm fully trained in the use of weapons, so I found it was about time that I invested in something for personal protection," she said. "And I'm a good shot, too."

Cannon's house is protected by her dogs (little King Charles Cavalier spaniels), and "if they don't work, it's protected by Smith & Wesson," she said, laughing.

The humor and ease of her life now wasn't always there. "I didn't realize before I came out that I was very depressed for the most part. When I finally came out and was honest with myself, my personality did a flip. So now I'm a very open person about who I am and so enjoy talking with people and sharing information about myself so it will help others ...," Cannon said.

She retired from a six-figure salary job in the tech industry, and can now live her best life volunteering and serving in government, but there were many years of struggle to get here. As a teenager in the 1960s, she knew she was different, but felt she couldn't share her secret with anyone. "I grew up in a Catholic family. I couldn't share that with the priest. I couldn't share it with my folks. I thought I was broken because I couldn't find any information about being a transgender person anywhere," she said.

She ignored her true self, got married and raised a family. But the struggle re-emerged in her mid-forties and tore her apart. She came out to her family as a cross dresser, which wasn't the full story. Eventually, Cannon's wife asked her to move out of the house and they went their separate ways.

Cannon's two daughters, who were grown and starting college, also struggled with Cannon's gender identity, but are now two of her greatest supporters.

There's no one special in Cannon's life romantically speaking and that, she said, is a challenge for a lot of transgendered people. "People aren't quite sure as far as our physical being. How can we connect and how can we have a life together?" Cannon said.

At her age, she said she just wants somebody with whom she can share life's fun experiences. With the hormones she's on, a physical relationship isn't in the cards. "Just having someone I could hug once in awhile would be a great thing," she said.

Coty Donohue and Matt Gerding share their story and why they chose Somersworth.