Aires Kelley, 1, holds a Pride flag Saturday during Drag Storytime at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library, one of many LGBTQ+ friendly events held in Alaska’s capital city. For the second year in a row, the City and Borough of Juneau received a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2022 Municipality Equality Index scorecard. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Aires Kelley, 1, holds a Pride flag Saturday during Drag Storytime at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library, one of many LGBTQ+ friendly events held in Alaska’s capital city. For the second year in a row, the City and Borough of Juneau received a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2022 Municipality Equality Index scorecard. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Juneau receives perfect score for LGBTQ+ inclusivity

Meanwhile, state and federal protections are lacking, advocates say.

For the second year in a row, the City and Borough of Juneau received a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2022 Municipality Equality Index scorecard, an assessment that explores municipal governments’ inclusivity to LGBTQ+ people in the community it serves. Of the more than 500 cities that were assessed, each was rated by its non-discrimination laws, the municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement and leadership on LGBTQ+ equality.

“I’d say we’re really pleased and proud,” said Robert Barr, deputy city manager for the City and Borough of Juneau.

Juneau was the only city out of the seven Alaska cities assessed to receive a perfect score, and a part of the only 120 cities to receive a perfect score out of the more than 500 assessed. Of the six other cities assessed, the city of Homer received a 37, Fairbanks a 64, Anchorage an 81 Ketchikan a 52, Sitka a 38 and Wisalla earning a 42.

“This takes effort — a 100 on the MEI is truly an achievement to be proud of,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign. “It demonstrates the city took seriously the needs of the LGBTQ community and took proactive steps to create a welcoming environment for LGBTQ people.”

Back in 2016, Juneau became the second city in the state to adopt an ordinance barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender expression. Today, CBJ continues to be one of the few municipalities across Alaska that have codified protections for LGBTQ+ people, joined by Anchorage, Ketchikan and Sitka.

Currently, the state of Alaska does not have any codified nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in the state, despite legislation repeatedly being introduced in each legislative session for more than a decade.

Barr said the city is committed to placing equality at the forefront of local police and a topic city officials remain interested in furthering and city officials are always ready to engage with residents about it.

“We’re definitely interested in moving the needle,” Bar said. “We think it’s important to be explicit in law about protections for the people in our community.”

He said the city often talks to other Alaska municipalities about Juneau’s nondiscrimination legislation and willingly engages with state officials about city government’s impacts on the people within the borough.

Barr said he encourages people in the Juneau community to continue to reach out to the city if there are gaps in non-discrimination protections they’d like to see change.

Assembly member Michelle Bonnet Hale said she was “really proud of our community” and said she thinks that the high score reflects how welcoming and accepting the community that lives in Juneau is.

Michelle Bonnet Hale’s partner, Jane Hale, is a transgender columnist who shared her story by publicly coming out in a column published in the Juneau Empire this February. Michelle Bonnet Hale said she and her partner are grateful to be in such a welcoming community and the “incredible” policies both written and unwritten that were put into place by the prior Assembly. She said she thinks it’s far easier in Juneau than in most places for people to flourish as the person that they are.

“They took actions that were not being taken at higher levels — It took courage and hard work,” Michelle Bonnet Hale said. “In me and my partner’s case, I cannot think of a more accepting community for my partner to come out, and I applaud people’s courage and I hope people take courage from the actions of the people who came before them.”

She said she and the other Assembly members are not currently not actively working on any LGBTQ+ policies at the moment, but said the Assembly is committed to listening to the LGBTQ+ community in Juneau and working to offer more protection in the future and urged people to reach out to the Assembly to share where they think the gap is in nondiscrimination protections in the city.

Warbelow agreed and said the more officials at the state and federal government see cities taking action and hear citizens calling for further protections, the more likely change will come.

“Making your voice heard and sharing your priorities with your elected officials is an important way of changing the conversation,” she said.

Warbelow said as long as the federal government continues to lack guaranteed and permanent nondiscrimination protections, it’s up to state and municipal governments to advocate for change in their communities.

Similar to Alaska’s state legislation, Non-discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender expression is not explicitly enshrined in federal law. And, though the federal government does grant protections in the workplace — per the 1964 Bostock v. Clayton County Supreme Court case which protects employees against discrimination because they are gay or transgender — the protection only applies to businesses with 15 employees or more, leaving a gap for many LGBTQ+ workers nationwide said Warbelow.

[Alaskans throw support behind federal LGBTQ+ protections]

Warbelow said the Human Rights Campaign — which is currently the largest LGBTQ+ political lobbying organization in the United States. — will continue to support Alaska residents who remain without protection, and said in her experience, municipal governments that adopt nondiscrimination laws have often been a precursor for statewide — and even nationwide — action.

“Juneau is modeling nondiscrimination laws that can work in practical ways that meet Alaska residents’ needs,” she said.

Just this week, some steps for federal-level protections for LGBTQ+ people have been taken as a same-sex marriage bill passed the Senate in a bipartisan vote, and is now heading to the House where it is also expected to pass and be signed into law by President Biden in the coming weeks. Both of Alaska’s Republican Senators voted in for the bill.

“My hope is that the bipartisan nature of the Respect for Marriage Act will demonstrate that marriage equality should no longer be an issue nationwide,” Warbelow said. “Same-sex couples should be able to sleep soundly at night.”

There is still a lot of work to be done on LGBTQ+ equality-related issues, said Ruth Botstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, an organization that works to defend and preserve individual rights. “I think in Alaska and nationally we’re seeing a lot of troubling things happening.

Botstein said the ACLU is always keeping an eye on statewide legislation that might be anti-LGBTQ+ along with legislation that might improve protections statewide and she encouraged people to contact the nonprofit if they believe people are being discriminated against in Alaska.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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