The Senate Health and Social Services Committee heard testimony before a full room Monday on a bill that would prevent private employers and landlords from discriminating against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“People from all over the state are watching with interest and concern,” said Sen. Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat and sponsor of SB131. “It’s a very simple piece of legislation with deep meaning. If you’re inclined to feel differently about it, replace gender identity with female gender, Norwegian heritage or Native Alaskan.”
The bill would expand upon existing state statutes that prevent discrimination based on race, sex and religion, Gardner aide Thomas Presley said. Currently, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer person can legally be denied employment, rental property or financial services based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, he said.
The bill was introduced last session by former Juneau Rep. Beth Kerttula, Gardner said, but after receiving a hearing it failed to move forward.
Presley presented a survey of Anchorage LGBTQ people that showed 78 percent of transgender people in the city had experienced discrimination in their workplace.
He urged the senators to view the bill as another step toward equality for Alaska, just like 1945’s Anti-Discrimination Act that protected Alaska Natives under the law, and the 1913 law that gave women the right to vote “well before the federal decision to do so.”
Eleven people testified in favor of the legislation and another 15 called in to the meeting from around the state in favor. Only one person who called in was against the bill.
Many testifiers provided personal stories to stress a perceived need for the legislation. Anchorage resident Victoria Green said she is an active member of her children’s Parent-Teacher Association, as well as a church-goer, property owner and U.S. Air Force veteran.
“And I am a lesbian,” she said. “It’s not typically how I introduce myself, but it’s of utmost importance today.”
Anchorage resident Drew Phoenix, a transgender man, spoke of his experience trying to rent a home when he first moved to the city in 2008. He was denied housing three times by three different landlords because of his gender identity, he said.
“I qualified in every possible way; however, when the landlord found out I was transgender the offer was withdrawn,” Phoenix said.
When it was revealed through Phoenix’s credit history that he is transgender — his former name was listed on the history — the attitude of the landlords would change instantly, he said.
“They’d say, ‘This isn’t going to work out; we can’t rent to you,’” Phoenix recalled.
Michael Dunsmore, a caller from Anchorage, said that although he is heterosexual, passage of SB131 would affect all Alaskans.
“Are they (LGBTQ people) going to come out to the employer at the interview or have to keep their personal gender identity secret for the majority of their employment?” Dunsmore said. “This really is not a choice or decision about morality; this is strictly about not discriminating against other members of our community, and I think this is something all Alaskans can get behind.”
Longtime Juneauite Mildred Boesser addressed the committee in person. Her children were raised in Alaska, she said, and now her grandchildren and great-grandchildren are being raised here, too.
“I’m also a Christian and my faith informs what I do,” Boesser said. She said she is “saddened” that current anti-discrimination laws leave out LGBTQ people and that “as a heterosexual person she can only imagine” what it would be like to hide that part of herself, “even though in or out I’m still the same person.”
She urged the committee to move the bill to the next step in the legislative process.
“This is about being able to live freely and openly without abuse or harassment or reprisal for being who you truly are,” Boesser said.
Married couple Kimberly Hubbard and Marguerite Lauri, both state employees, also testified. Hubbard said working for the state is the first time she’s felt comfortable coming out as a lesbian at her workplace, and she wants all of Alaska’s LGBTQ community to feel as safe at work.
“I can’t begin to accurately express in words the anxiety, stress and fear that comes along with having to hide who you are,” she said.
Juneauite Mary Graham said that after testifying at meetings similar to Monday’s since she moved to Alaska years ago, she’s ready to see the bill become law.
“I’m a little tired today because since 1982, I’ve sat in meetings like this talking about this issue,” she said.
Mary Nanuwak called from Anchorage to voice her concern that passing the bill would overshadow needs of Alaska Natives.
“With an influx of gay and transgender people to Alaska, who expect to get all these services, the people in the bush are going to suffer more,” she said.
The bill will be heard again by the Health and Social Services Committee before going before the Senate Finance Committee, said Darwin Peterson, chief of staff for Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka. Stedman is chairman of the Health and Social Services Committee. The bill was flagged for the Finance Committee because it includes an approximately $58,000 salary for a part-time state employee who would handle discrimination complaints.
Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, added a Senate Judiciary Committee referral to the bill Monday evening, Peterson said. The bill will now have to pass through the Finance and Judiciary committees before it makes its way to the Senate floor.
Also on Monday, Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, introduced a resolution proposing an amendment to the state constitution that would remove the definition of marriage as being only between a man and a woman.