Ten years ago, I had the honor of introducing Alaska’s first bill to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. I had introduced and worked on some very consequential legislation before that time – but I was thanked more for this piece of legislation than for any other legislation I ever worked on in my 15 years as an Alaskan legislator.
Alaskans approached me about it in the grocery store, in the bank, in the airports — really everywhere. I was amazed. When my then University of Alaska Southeast intern, Elizabeth Seliotes Bolling, had initially brought the idea to me, it struck me as just common sense — that of course everyone had the right to be free from discrimination. But after the bill’s introduction and as the year went on, every time someone thanked me, I choked up, because I also heard the awful stories of how Alaskans had been treated for their sexuality and gender expression. People were shamed, denied housing, called names, abused, raped, their friends were killed — they died by suicide, all in Alaska.
I’m sure many readers will be shocked to hear that this type of discrimination is still, horribly enough, common in Alaska and across the country. A recent survey found that more than one in three LGBTQ+ Americans faced discrimination in the past year, including more than three in five transgender Americans. More than half of LGBTQ+ people have experienced harassment or discrimination in a public place such as a store, transportation or a restroom.
Ten years have passed since my bill criminalizing discrimination in public places was introduced. I thought that by now we would have state and federal laws protecting us all from discriminatory practices. The statistics of how people feel about this are on our side: More than 80% of Americans favor a law that would protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing — including 68% of Republicans. Sadly, Alaska is not living up to its historic leadership on equality.
In the 1940s, Alaska’s great civil rights leader Elizabeth Ḵaax̲gal.aat Wanamaker Peratrovich championed anti-discrimination legislation. Her heroic efforts led then-Gov. Ernest Gruening to push Alaska to become the first state to criminalize discrimination against individuals based on race by passing the Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945. Alaska passed this momentous legislation two decades before the U.S. Civil Rights Act was passed.
Though I have retired from public office, I remain committed to championing ways to improve life for Alaskans. Regardless of who we love, or our gender, we are all Alaskans. We all need each other. Let’s end the cruel, and inhumane legal discrimination against our fellow Alaskans. Let’s live up to the fierce independence of our Alaskan reputation, and remember the precedence set by Elizabeth Ḵaax̲gal.aat Wanamaker Peratrovich and Governor Ernest Gruening.
Cities like Anchorage, Sitka, Fairbanks and Juneau have passed their own laws protecting LGBTQ+ Alaskans. An Alaska State House bill, HB 82, sponsored by Rep. Andy Josephson, has been introduced to ensure that gay and transgender Alaskans are afforded the same rights as everyone else, anywhere in Alaska. Let’s support Rep. Josephson and all Alaskans and pass HB 82 this session. We do not have another decade to waste without protecting every Alaskan.
As I grew up in Alaska, I was taught that no matter what race, religious belief or gender identification, we were all unique, all to be valued, and that we were all Alaskans. I am an Alaskan first, which carries the personality trait of fierce independence and resilience. As my grandfather Oscar Kerttula used to say, “you can be an Alaskan in five minutes, or you can live here 50 years and still not get it.” Let’s get it. Let’s support ALL Alaskans against discrimination.
• Beth Kerttula is former Alaska State House Minority Leader. She resides in Juneau.