This article has been updated to include additional information.
A broad coalition of Alaskans is pushing hard for federal protections for LGBTQ people.
The group includes over 40 organizations and congregations that want Congress to pass a law protecting people from being denied housing, health care and employment among other services based on their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Those 40-plus organizations signed a letter urging Congress to take action as part of Freedom for All Americans, a national, bipartisan campaign focused on passing legislation like the Equality Act.
“There is this wide public support in all different arenas that we do need these comprehensive protections,” said Charlie Mills, federal program manager for Identity, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization based in Anchorage.
Mills was among a group, which included clergy, policy advocates and former lawmakers, who spoke to the Empire via video call about the push for federal protections and why it’s happening now.
Alaskans stumping for protections say passing a federal law, like the Equality Act, would be a simple, clear way to bar discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation or gender identity when it comes to public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit and the jury system.
It would be a way of codifying and making consistent the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County Georgia decision, said Caitlin Smith, senior manager of policy and outreach for Freedom for All Americans. In Bostock, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Former state Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat who introduced a bill to bar LGBTQ discrimination at the state level in 2013, said federal protections would solve some issues such as credit lines and banking that state laws wouldn’t address.
National legislation, state and local impact
Federal protections would have real-world impacts in Alaska, proponents said.
Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, who served in both chambers of the Alaska State Legislature, said she’s heard from veterans who were protected from discrimination during active service but not after leaving the military and relocating to Alaska.
Owen Hutchinson, co-chair for Identity, said housing-related calls and questions about legal assistance are among the most common types of calls Identity receives.
“We don’t provide housing, and it is very hard to refer people to housing when we don’t know the status of that landlord,” Hutchinson said, adding that federal protections would help to solve some issues.
Hutchinson said “staggering” rates of behavioral health issues among LGBTQ people are exacerbated by a lack of protection in housing, employment and other areas.
A recent health needs assessment of Alaska’s LGBTQ population found 65% of respondents said they sometimes, often or always fear a negative reaction from their health care provider when discussing their LGBTQ status.
Hutchinson said that speaks to the necessity of providing protections for LGBTQ people at a national level.
There’s also hope among protections supporters that the law could lead to harm reduction among youths.
Research by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ people, found American Indian and Alaska Native LGBTQ youth were 2.5 times more likely to report a suicide attempt than non-Indigenous LGBTQ youth. Seventy percent of Indigenous LGBTQ youth reported discrimination because of their LGBTQ identity compared to 55% of non-Indigenous LGBTQ youth. Alaska Native and American Indian youths who reported LGBTQ-based victimization or discrimination were at more than three and 2.5 times the risk for attempting suicide, respectively, according to The Trevor Project.
“What we hear most are housing issues, medical issues, parental issues,” Hutchinson said. “These kinds of protections start to address some of that and indicate to our youth that you are valued.”
Those pushing for protections say the time is right for such legislation to pass, based on public sentiment. Polling suggests the majority of Americans support the Equality Act, or legislation like it.
That support crosses party lines, protections proponents said, and it includes institutions that have historically opposed LGBTQ protections.
The Rev. Matt Schultz, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Anchorage, told the Empire he grew up in an environment that did not look favorably on LGBTQ people.
However, Schultz said his theological and personal opinions have changed, and he works to counteract “the lie that discrimination is a Judeo-Christian value.”
Speaking to the other half of the Judeo-Christian descriptor, Rabbi Abram Goodstein, rabbi for the Congregation Beth Shalom in Anchorage, said his congregation has supported Pride activities for over 30 years.
Schultz said that his personal change was two-pronged. It included a depth of study that led him to conclude the Bible does not oppose homosexuality. It also included a widening of life experiences.
“I simply got to know and love people who were gay and are gay,” Schultz said. “They were at my wedding, and they are in my family.”
Both Goodstein and Schultz said religious freedom and protecting LGBTQ people aren’t mutually exclusive.
“It is simply adding LGBTQ people to currently protected groups,” Schultz said, adding that a church wouldn’t be required to do anything unless it was providing public services.
Additionally, those championing protections for LGBTQ people say the window of legislative opportunity is clearly open — albeit narrowly.
The road ahead
The Equality Act was passed 224-206 in the U.S. House of Representatives with unanimous support from Democrats and votes from eight Republicans —Alaska’s sole Rep. Don Young, a Republican, did not vote on the bill —and its fate is now in the hands of the Senate.
While Democrats hold a narrow advantage in the Senate because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, the bill would need 60 votes to avoid a filibuster, and that leaves its path forward murky.
Potential Republican supporters such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah have publicly declined to support the bill in its current form. Collins, who co-sponsored the bill in the past Congress, proposed changes that would need to be made for her to support the bill, and Romney has indicated he will oppose the bill. Both cited concerns about religious liberty.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been reviewing the Equality Act and listening to constituents’ feedback, said Karina Borger, a spokesperson for the Alaska Republican.
“Some Alaskans have raised legitimate concerns about the removal of religious protections in the proposed legislation provided under current law, which Senator Murkowski takes very seriously,” Borger said. “She stresses that no one should be discriminated against, ever, and continues to evaluate the best way to provide equal protections for LGBTQ+ people.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Sen. Dan Sullivan, said the Alaska Republican agrees that Americans shouldn’t be able to be fired from their jobs simply because of their religion, race or sexual orientation, but Sullivan has concerns about the bill’s scope.
“Senator Sullivan has long agreed with the principle that Americans shouldn’t be able to be fired from a job simply because of their religion, race, or sexual orientation,” the spokesperson said. “He is committed to the principle of non-discrimination and enforcement of laws providing equality for all Americans. The Equality Act, however, significantly expands beyond employment and could infringe on religion and religious liberties.”
LGBTQ protection proponents say the potential legislative logjam makes it especially important for groups, like the 40-plus coalition of Alaskans, to demonstrate the broad support that exists for the legislation and its goals.
Hutchinson said in considering the Equality Act, he notices the progress that’s been made since the late ’80s days of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a massive project memorializing people who had died of AIDS that drew attention to a disease that was disproportionately killing members of the LGBTQ community. Still, Hutchinson said there is still a “little bit” further to go.
“This is a moment where that little bit could happen,” Hutchinson said. “If this moment passes and we miss it, it’s possible it could be another 30 years.”
• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.