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Assembly OKs gay rights ordinance 7-4

Don Hunter

By a 7-4 vote, the Anchorage Assembly Tuesday approved a compromise ordinance that bans discrimination in Anchorage on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The vote capped two months of public meetings on a controversial issue that has engaged the community for a generation. The Assembly itself debated for most of an hour Tuesday, displaying emotion and passion not often seen in the chambers.

The majority falls one vote short of reaching the 8-vote supermajority needed to override a mayoral veto. Mayor Dan Sullivan said before the vote he had not decided if he would take that step. He has seven days to decide.

Assemblyman Patrick Flynn authored the successful compromise, which had the support of Matt Claman, Elvi Gray-Jackson, Jennifer Johnston, Mike Gutierrez, Sheila Selkregg and vice-chairwoman Harriet Drummond. Chair Debbie Ossiander and members Chris Birch, Bill Starr and Dan Coffey opposed.

Flynn's proposal sought to protect the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people to employment, credit, public accommodations and housing free from discrimination. It also spelled out exemptions for churches and other religious organizations.

Selkregg said Flynn's version of the ordinance was "an effort to respect the religious community" that packed the Assembly's chambers to oppose the proposal. "It allows churches to choose who they hire" in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs, she said.

Birch and Starr said they had not been convinced that discrimination against gays and lesbians is a problem in Anchorage. "I don't see signs that say, 'No Gays Allowed,' " Starr said.

"We have a tolerant and diverse community that generally gets along," he said.

After the vote, Jackie Buckley, an organizer of Equality Works, a group that pushed for passage, said she was "very glad that the Assembly has seen there is a problem" that needed to be addressed.

"It was a clear majority," she said. "We hope the mayor will do the right thing."

The Rev. Jerry Prevo, a leading opponent of this and similar proposals since the 1970s, said he was "pleasantly surprised" that Ossiander, the Assembly's chair, had voted against Flynn's compromise. Ossiander had been thought to be a likely yes vote, but said Tuesday night the ordinance didn't go far enough in protecting people and went too far in other ways.

Flynn and Selkregg inserted a provision in the ordinance to ensure it protected employer's rights to enforce workplace rules and allow them to maintain "gender segregated restrooms."

But Ossiander said she worried that the ordinance might lead to businesses having to create special facilities.

"My reading on this is that businesses could be required to have unisex bathrooms," Ossiander said.

Several vocal opponents of the proposal had argued it would allow transgendered men to use women's restrooms, something that several claimed to have seen already in local stores and the Loussac Library.

Like other members, Ossiander's explanation of her vote was sometimes emotional.

"In the course of the last two months, I've come to the belief that there are some citizens that need more protection than we're giving them," she said.

"I have worried about this vote for two months," she said. "We need to treat each other well in this world, and we don't."

Several members who voted yes brought up friends or acquaintances who were special to them, and gay. In Flynn's case, it was a mailman who served Flynn's childhood home for years.

"Glenn ... was a terrific guy," Flynn said. "He was a true public servant."

But, Flynn said, the mailman moved from Anchorage to a city in North Carolina that he considered more tolerant.

Johnston mentioned a person close to her whose "life (was) cut short by suicide."

She also mentioned David Rose, the first Assembly chairman after unification, who championed the first efforts in 1976 to protect gays from discrimination in Anchorage. The Assembly passed that first ordinance, but it was vetoed by then Mayor George Sullivan, Dan's father.

Because of Rose's "memory and this other very special person, I am going to be voting in favor of this ordinance," Johnston said.

Gray-Jackson said she was encouraged by the long, difficult hours of public testimony on the ordinance. It brought into the political discourse many parts of the community who ordinarily don't turn out for Assembly meetings, she said.

"Equal rights is just so important to me, and I believe in equal rights for everyone"

She urged her colleagues "to simply do the right thing and allow all of us to live in this community without discrimination."

Earlier, the Assembly opened debate with Assemblyman Coffey's resolution to set up a task force on the issue. It was clear Coffey lacked the votes for his resolution, which would have put off a policy change till sometime in the future.

Coffey said he authored the resolution in an attempt to find a common understanding of how to proceed, "not with any intent to delay or defer" consideration of the issue.

"I don't think I achieved my goal," he said.

Other members said they felt an obligation to debate and act on the issue, not just put the decision off for more than a year.

Coffey's resolution failed, and the panel took up the substitute ordinance authored by Flynn.

The debate on the civil rights issue began on June 9. In the measure, the Assembly took on one of the most controversial issues ever to face the body -- whether to ban discrimination in Anchorage on the basis of sexual orientation.

As far as specific measures, the Assembly had a broad menu to choose from, including four versions of the original ordinance and separate proposals to put the issue on the ballot as charter amendments next spring.

Supporters of the anti-discrimination measure, many wearing blue, and opponents, wearing red, were scattered through the Assembly chambers.

Find Don Hunter online at adn.com/contact/dhunter or call 257-4349.


By DON HUNTER
dhunter@adn.com