Hundreds of people converged on the Anchorage Assembly chambers Tuesday night to discuss a question that has challenged the city for decades: whether legal protections in city law against discrimination in employment, housing and finance should be extended to gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
A public hearing on the issue stretched late into the night, with speaker after speaker standing before the Assembly for their three minutes and the panel itself nowhere near a decision on a proposed ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The Assembly adjourned at 11 p.m., having heard from 88 of 317 people who had signed up to testify, by Assembly Chair Debbie Ossiander's count. Efforts to extend the meeting to hear from a few more of them failed to get the needed eight-vote supermajority.
Ossiander said the testimony will pick up again next Tuesday.
The 250-seat Assembly meeting room filled long before the public hearing began. The overflow crowd spilled over to the 230-seat Marston Theatre across the lobby in Loussac Library, and outside scores of other people loudly demonstrated for and against the ordinance.
The first hours of the extended proceeding brought emotional testimony from both sides. Some seemed angry, others afraid, many were nervous. Voices quavered. Some people cried.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people talked about being fired and ridiculed and treated badly in the workplace and in trying to find a place to live.
Ordinance opponents labeled the idea of banning discrimination because of sexual orientation as a "special right" that infringed on their own religious beliefs and rights.
"Taking away rights from one entity so that more rights may be given to another ... is not equal rights," one person said.
Barbara Bernard likened the attempts to secure protections for gays and lesbians to the fight for civil rights by blacks and other minorities in the 1950s and 1960s.
She said her gay son lives and works in Oregon, because "in Portland he is treated as a citizen with civil rights." She urged Assembly members to vote for the measure.
"As an Assembly you are creating a legacy," she said. "What will that legacy be?"
Susie Dove, however, said the ordinance goes too far.
"This ordinance crosses the boundaries of any human right," Dove said. "It pushes, it pushes, it pushes the beliefs and lifestyles (of homosexual and bisexual people) onto heterosexual people," she said.
Phyllis Rhodes said she's been in a same sex relationship for more than 20 years, and has felt the pressure of discrimination because of her orientation a number of times. "I was fearful of losing my job and I was fearful of being harassed," Rhodes said.
"This is a wonderful city," she said. "It could be even more wonderful ... if fear and hate were not being taught. If fear and hate were not being tolerated."
Allison Mendel, an attorney, told the Assembly, "I want to be able to put my wedding picture on my desk just like you do without being fired for doing it." She said she's had other attorneys, "on the record in court cases accuse me of having particular opinions in a case because I'm a lesbian and therefore I should not be listened to."
"Clients tell me horrible stories ...(about being) fired because someone thought they were gay whether they were or not," she said.
Others, including former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, opposed the proposal, reminding Assembly members that Alaska voters have come down against same-sex marriage in a 1990s constitutional amendment.
Stan Roach, pastor of the Independent Baptist Church, likened the ordinance to the early days of legal abortion, which he said started in cases of rape and threats to a woman's life and expanded. "That's what this sexual orientation is going to do," he said. "It's going to grow. ...
"God made man and God made woman, and I've seen some people tonight, I don't know what they are," Roach said.
More than one opponent compared the timing of the Assembly's consideration of the sexual orientation ordinance with what they termed rushed consideration of several long-term labor contracts at the end of former Mayor Mark Begich's administration.
Those deals were approved before the Assembly knew all the facts and had to be revisited when city officials discovered a big budget deficit, they said. They argued for postponing action until Mayor-elect Dan Sullivan is sworn in on July 1.
Sullivan's father, then-Mayor George Sullivan, vetoed a similar law in the 1970s.
Donna Edmunds said she has many gay and lesbian friends. "Nevertheless," she said, she believes the lives most gay people lead are "not healthy, acceptable lifestyle choices."
She added that she thinks political supporters of the measure are "trying to railroad this through before Mayor Sullivan takes office." She also predicted opponents will put a referendum on the ballot next spring if the Assembly passes the measure.
Tony Glavinic, however, said he's a Steller High graduate who attends college in Washington, D.C., because the city is more tolerant of gays.
"I feel safe, respected and valued there," Glavinic said.
"I don't think Anchorage wants to be known as a city where you can be legally discriminated against because of who you are, who you love."
Contact reporter Don Hunter at email@example.com or 257-4349.