An initiative in Anchorage's upcoming municipal election asks voters to decide whether people should use bathrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms that match their sex at birth.
The initiative, Proposition 1, would rescind a civil rights protection for transgender people that has been in effect since 2015.
But backers of the initiative say it isn't meant to invite discrimination against transgender people, who live their lives as a gender different from their biological sex. They say it's rooted in fundamental religious beliefs about the differences between men and women, and keeping women and children safe from would-be sexual predators who might exploit the existing legal protections.
"This proposition has to do with dignity and privacy and safety, but also has to do with some broader macro issues related to how we're designed," said Jim Minnery, the president Alaska Family Action, the faith-based, socially-conservative advocacy group backing Prop. 1 along with a number of Anchorage church leaders.
Opposition to the proposition is multi-faceted. Members of Fair Anchorage — the official opposition campaign — say Proposition 1 is a veiled attempt to discriminate against people who are transgender. Other faith leaders have offered Biblical interpretations in support of Anchorage's non-discrimination law. Two influential business organizations, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., have come out against Prop. 1, saying Anchorage would appear to be a less welcoming community if voters approved it.
Anchorage's existing law — which would be repealed by Prop. 1 — says a person's gender identity can be established through medical history, care or treatment of the gender identity.
The current law also calls for "consistent and uniform assertion of the gender identity, or other evidence gender identity is sincerely held, core to a person's gender-related self identity, and not being asserted for an improper purpose."
Anchorage police officials say there are already laws against entering restrooms and other shared facilities intending to harass or assault another person, and there has not been an uptick in complaints while the city's existing law has been in effect. Justin Doll, the Anchorage police chief, said in December he did not know how police would stop someone from entering a bathroom, for example, at the Dena'ina Convention Center because they could not prove their sex at birth.
Minnery, who has been involved in Anchorage's most bitter recent fights over protections for LGBT people, says the opposition's heavy focus on enforcement misses the point.
"Of course we're not going to have law enforcement in locker rooms," Minnery said.
He characterized Prop. 1 as a return to the way Anchorage was before the non-discrimination law passed in 2015.
One new thing the initiative would do is define "sex" in Anchorage city law as the "immutable biological condition of being male or female," a reflection of a religious belief held by Minnery's ministry. A birth certificate can be used as evidence of a person's sex, the measure says.
Transgender residents say that provision, if in fact enforced, would create a very practical problem when they need to use the restroom.
"I wouldn't feel comfortable in the men's restroom — that's not where I belong," said Lillian Lennon, an organizer with the Fair Anchorage campaign and a transgender woman. "And I don't think a lot of men would feel comfortable either, because I live and present as a woman."
The initiative has thrust Anchorage into a national debate about "bathroom bills," efforts to regulate restrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms by sex at birth. A similar statewide initiative appears on the ballot in Massachusetts this fall. In Montana, a similar statewide measure is in the signature-gathering phase.
Anchorage has fought bitter fights twice within the past decade over extending civil rights protections to gay, lesbian and transgender residents. Mayor Dan Sullivan vetoed such a non-discrimination law in 2009, and voters overwhelmingly rejected an initiative in 2012.
By September 2015, Anchorage's political climate had shifted. A moderate-progressive majority presided over the Anchorage Assembly and a supportive mayor, Ethan Berkowitz, had taken office. An ordinance that banned discrimination over sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment and public accommodations passed easily. Other Alaska towns, like Juneau, have followed.
Minnery and the pastor of the Anchorage Baptist Temple, Jerry Prevo, both instrumental in past campaigns to reject such laws, warned immediately of a repeal effort.
Then, in November 2015, Houston voters repealed a law barring discrimination over sexual discrimination and gender identity. The next year, a contentious law passed in North Carolina that initially required bathrooms to be accessed on the basis of "biological sex." That provision that was later repealed after pushback from business giants, though the state still bars cities from passing non-discrimination laws. In Texas, the state Legislature has contemplated "bathroom bills" for two years now.
Encouraged by the activity in Houston and North Carolina, Minnery's organization focused on a specific piece of Anchorage's non-discrimination law — a person's right to use bathrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms that correspond with their gender identity, or gender-related self-identity expressed in appearance or behavior. This message found resonance with voters in Houston, where opponents of the city's non-discrimination law ran ads warning of men in women's restrooms.
In recent weeks, Alaska Family Action has been campaigning at religious and business groups around Anchorage. Early one February morning, a few dozen people sat around tables at the Petroleum Club in Midtown Anchorage for an event called "God and Gender Identity," featuring food and a series of speakers.
Minnery and his wife, Kim Minnery, one of the sponsors of Prop. 1, said they wanted to be respectful to their transgender and Christian neighbors who disagreed with them. Minnery also offered an apology.
"Those who struggle with their gender, those who struggle with their sexuality in whatever fashion, sometimes have felt maligned and alienated from the church," Jim Minnery said. "And for that we do say sorry."
But Minnery said people who support Prop. 1 are generally uncomfortable "with the idea of people of the opposite biological sex" in restrooms, showers or locker rooms.
He also repeated an assertion that has become ubiquitous in campaigns against non-discrimination laws nationally: Anchorage's current law paves the way for men to sexually assault or harass women in restrooms or dressing rooms, though police say there have been no reported incidents in Anchorage of men falsely claiming to be transgender women while committing crimes in those facilities.
Minnery pointed to a Dec. 1 incident at the Burlington Coat Factory in the Northway Mall, where police said a man entered the dressing room and began taking pictures of a woman over the stall door. The woman later told KTUU-TV that the man was naked from the waist down, and grabbed her crotch before running away from the store.
"There's your example right there," Minnery said.
Police described the incident as sexual assault. The suspect has not yet been found, so it isn't clear whether Anchorage's non-discrimination law played a role. The woman told KTUU-TV the company should provide more oversight of dressing rooms.
Ryan Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy center based in Washington, D.C., spoke at the Petroleum Club event and dismissed the argument by police that laws already exist to punish predatory behavior.
"That's cold comfort to a person who was victimized," Anderson said.
Anchorage police spokeswoman Nora Morse said there has not been an uptick in complaints about restrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms since the Anchorage law passed. Matthew Teaford, the executive director of the Equal Employment Office with the Anchorage School District, recently told the Anchorage School Board that in two years on the job he'd received no complaints about who was using what bathroom.
Minnery, however, said there are "people who are rightfully uncomfortable with someone of the opposite biological sex being in a private space."
In a February op-ed, Undra Parker, the pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Anchorage, said that people who identify with a different gender than their sex are loved and valued, but he cited the Christian Bible saying that men and women are created differently. At the Petroleum Club, Parker called Anchorage's non-discrimination law a "Pandora's box."
Prop. 1's opponents say such concerns sow misinformation about transgender people in attempt to score political points. Non-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity have existed without controversy in more than 150 U.S. cities and in 19 states, in some cases for decades, said Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director and senior counsel for the Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, which is helping coordinate and finance the Fair Anchorage campaign.
"They are truly not controversial in places where they have passed," Oakley said of non-discrimination laws for gender identity. "The horrible things our opponents say are going to happen, simply don't happen. It's just not true."
Other Anchorage faith leaders have offered opposing religious interpretations. Michael Burke, the pastor at St. Mary's Episcopal Church who works with a group called Christians for Equality, said Parker and Minnery were relying on a "narrow, literal reading" of a portion of the Christian Bible.
Without such protections, transgender people are vulnerable to discrimination or harassment, Oakley said. A summer 2015 survey of 84 transgender residents in Anchorage from the Washington DC-based National Center for Transgender Equality found that 10 percent of those surveyed were denied bathroom access. More than half said they avoided public restrooms because they were afraid of confrontation, and a quarter limited the amount they ate or drank during the day to avoid restrooms, the report said.
There's no definitive court ruling to say whether Proposition 1 could survive a legal challenge. In a memo last year, city attorney Bill Falsey said the initiative may run counter to equal protection and privacy rights.
A transgender man who had undergone hormonal therapy and sexual reassignment surgery would be forced to use the women's restroom if no single-stall restroom was available, which is the case for many city facilities, Falsey wrote. If asked why he was using the women's restroom, that person would be compelled to reveal his transgender status, a potential privacy violation, Falsey wrote.
Standing in a hallway outside the Petroleum Club, Kim Minnery said that single-stall restrooms should be built to accommodate people who are transgender. She said it isn't right that the government has required it and the law makes her and others feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
"A one-size-fits-all approach mandated by the city is wrong," Minnery said.
ADN reporter Tegan Hanlon contributed to this story.