Editor’s note: This article includes references to suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 800-273-8255.
With the legislative session over, and Pride Month beginning, only a handful of Alaska cities have codified protections for LGBTQ+ Alaskans.
June was first nationally recognized as a month of LGBTQ pride in 1999 by then-President Bill Clinton and commemorates the Stonewall Uprising of June 1968. The Stonewall Uprising, sometimes called the Stonewall Riots, was six days of clashes between patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and police.
According to the Library of Congress, “It was not the first time police raided a gay bar, and it was not the first time LGBTQ+ people fought back, but the events that would unfold over the next six days would fundamentally change the discourse surrounding LGBTQ+ activism in the United States.”
But for many, the month has become about celebrating LGBTQ pride and inclusion, and several organizations throughout Alaska have weeks worth of events planned. According to Identity, a statewide LGBTQ group, Pride events are scheduled in Anchorage, Dillingham, Fairbanks, Homer, Juneau, Ketchikan, Kodiak, Sitka, Soldotna, Seward and Valdez.
Policy and protections
According to Identity only Anchorage, Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka have local ordinances protecting LGBTQ people. That patchwork approach can leave holes in protections for LGBTQ people in the workplace, according to Stephen Koteff, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.
Koteff said workplace protections for LGBTQ people had been enshrined by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County, which found that under Title VII workplace protections, the definition of sex included sexual orientation and gender identity.
But those federal protections only apply to businesses with 15 employees or more, Koteff said, leaving holes in protections available to LGBTQ workers.
“We know that there are two ways in which this could change in Alaska,” Koteff said in an interview with the Empire. “There have been perennial attempts in the Legislature to add explicit protections to the human rights law and we hope there will be a sea change in attitudes and that it could pass and have it be signed by a governor that realizes that equality is for all of us and not just a select few.”
The other way, according to Koteff, is to have the Bostock decision applied to Alaska law, most likely by the Alaska Supreme Court.
According to a summary from Cornell Law School, in the Bostock decision the U.S. Supreme Court found that, “because discrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex, an employer who intentionally penalizes an employee for being homosexual or transgender also violates Title VII.”
In the closing days of this year’s legislative session, Senate Democrats were able to fend off a bill that would have prohibited transgender students from competing as the sex they identify with. As part of their opposition, Democrats noted that the interpretation of sex in the Bostock decision for Title VII employment protections applies to Title IX sports protections.
“That bill didn’t have a problem to solve,” said Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau. “It was a hammer swinging at some of the most vulnerable children in Alaska.”
Kiehl said the had been success in having the Bostock decision applied to certain areas of Alaska law like housing but that statewide protections were still needed.
Local events and national stressors
In Juneau, several Pride events are being sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness Juneau, that’s because studies have shown LGBTQ people — youth in particular — have higher rates of self-harm and suicidal ideation. A 2022 survey by the Trevor Project, a California-based LGBTQ youth advocacy group, found that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, but youth who found their schools to be accepting reported lower rates of suicidal ideation. According to the Trevor Project’s data, suicidal ideation and attempts were higher for nonwhite LGBTQ youth and highest among Native and Indigenous youth.
“The reason NAMI should be involved in Pride is that LGBT people are disproportionately affected (by mental health issues) as a result of the marginalization and oppression they face in our society today,” said Amelia Hanrahan, a NAMI board member and a mental wellness clinician at Floyd Dryden Middle School.
LGBTQ youth show higher rates of depression and anxiety, Hanrahan said, but those symptoms are significantly reduced when students feel accepted in their communities. That’s why the programs that NAMI has helped organize for Pride Month are focused on fostering a sense of community, Hanrahan said.
Meryl Connelly-Chew, NAMI’s program coordinator, noted that Trevor Project data found that LGBTQ youth who reported having a least one accepting adult in their lives were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt.
“It’s so clear to us that supporting LGBTQ youth is suicide prevention,” Connelly-Chew said. “As a queer adult, it’s really healing to be around young people it reminds me what I’m fighting for.”
Hanrahan said the Juneau School District’s policies were rather progressive and broadly protective of LGBTQ rights. The district has a non-discrimination policy for both students and staff that give protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. But there are currently no statewide protections for LGBTQ people in Alaska, despite legislation repeatedly being introduced in each legislative session for over 10 years.
The Trevor Project survey found that mental health issues among LGBTQ youth worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s something Hanrahan said she’d seen in her work as a youth counselor, not just with LGBTQ youth but with kids in general. The symptoms of depression and anxiety that students have gotten more severe since the pandemic started, Hanrahan said, but creating a welcoming environment goes a long way in easing those tensions.
“I don’t mean to be dramatic but I think it’s literally life shaving,” Hanrahan said of nondiscrimination policies. “I think I’ve seen it save children’s lives. If school is a place where they can safely come out and find acceptance from other peers and students and teachers and staff, it provides such a relief to them I think it is life-saving.”
That’s why NAMI has partnered with location organizations for Prime Month, Connelly-Chew said. and one of several co-sponsors of the Zach Gordon Youth Center’s Youth Pride Party and Pride Outside events. According to Connelly-Chew, events like those are meant to foster a sense of community and inclusivity for LGBTQ people, youth in particular.
“That’s some of what we’re trying to do,” Connelly-Chew said. “Being a part of Pride events, we hope to show LGBTQ youth in our community that we are a safe place for them to come to.”
The Southeast Alaska LGBTQ+ Alliance is hosting a series of events in Juneau including the GLITZ Drag Show and Pride Prom, according to Emily Mesch, co-chair of the group’s board of directors.
“SEAGLA is primarily a social organization,” Mesch said in an interview with the Empire. “We want to make sure LGBTTQ people are visible in the community and to each other, and are able to feel welcome.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.