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As Pride Fest kicks off, LGBT Alaskans reflect on years of change

Sarha Shaubach, left, and Mr. Bear Alaska, Walt Snell, serve free lemonade to Lewis Dischner at the Alaska Pride kickoff Saturday, June 7, 2014 at Peratrovich Park in Anchorage. The event was sponsored by Identity Inc., an LGBT advocacy nonprofit. Loren Holmes photo

Alaska Pride Fest, an annual celebration of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community, kicked off in downtown Anchorage Saturday.

This year the weeklong celebration, established in 1978, marks five years since the summer when an ordinance intended to secure equal rights for LGBT residents bitterly divided the Anchorage Assembly and the community. The conflict was so heated that the chapter came to be known among some proponents of the ordinance as "the summer of hate."

As the 2014 Pride Fest Kick-Off Party began at Elizabeth Peratrovich Park on the corner of Fourth Avenue and E Street Saturday, some attendees took time to reflect on how Alaska, and Anchorage, has changed since 2009.

"We are living in the in-between times," said Drew Phoenix, executive director of LGBT community organization Identity Inc.  "You have some of the federal recognitions for same-sex marriages and some legal protections, yet here we are living in a state that still doesn’t have marriage equality and still does not protect LGBT people. But it’s a matter of time."

Alaska, like 31 other U.S. states, does not recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions. A constitutional ban on same-sex marriage passed by the Alaska Legislature is the subject of a current legal challenge. In May 2014, five same-sex couples sued the state, and Gov. Sean Parnell, to overturn the ban.

In the post-"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era, the U.S. military has recognized the rights of LGBT service members -- including the right to marry. While on Alaska military posts, gay service members enjoy all the rights and privileges of their heterosexual comrades. But that changes once they walk off federally-controlled property.

In 2009, the equal rights ordinance (AO-64) was passed by the Anchorage Assembly after weeks of testimony that drew hundreds each night both in support of and against the proposed law. It was vetoed by Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, who said he saw no evidence the LGBT community faced discrimination in Alaska. A citizen's initiative aimed at bypassing the Assembly and the mayor failed narrowly in 2010.

But proponents of LGBT rights said that they believe attitudes are changing, even in the Last Frontier.

Phoenix said he believes a majority of Alaskans support equal rights and benefits for the LGBT community, a sentiment echoed by others at the Saturday gathering near the old Anchorage City Hall.

Katy Martin, 18, said she was kicked out of her Catholic high school for being gay. But Martin said she thinks people are becoming more accepting of her sexuality than ever before.

"I think things have changed," Martin said. "I think a lot of people accept us more than in 2009. They would rather support us than discriminate against us."

Phoenix said that the Anchorage business community  especially the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and Anchorage Economic Development Corp. -- have been helping to change some attitudes.

"They see the financial and social value of employing LGBT people and also attracting LGBT consumers," Phoenix said.

But, he said, said there is still discrimination in Alaska's largest city.

"I can be fired for who I am," Phoenix said. "I can be denied housing for being who I am. I can be kicked out of a restaurant, and it still happens."

Despite the lack of recognition of equal rights for Anchorage's LGBT residents, the local community remains vibrant, strong -- and optimistic. Phoenix said younger generations do not put much stock into a person's sexual identity or preference. And with their help, he said, he believes Alaska will finally level the moral, social and economic playing field for all of its residents.

"At heart we are Alaskans," Phoenix said. "We persist through adversity, and it makes us all the stronger to advocate and educate on behalf of our community."

Alaska Pride Fest runs through Sunday, June 15. Find a full calendar of events at AlaskaPride.org.