Both sides of the debate over an Anchorage ballot initiative that would regulate restrooms and "intimate facilities" by sex at birth traded accusations over campaign advertising this week, a sign of escalating rhetoric as the mail-in election reaches its midpoint.
Proposition 1 would roll back legal protections for transgender people in Anchorage's two-year-old non-discrimination law. Supporters of the initiative, "Yes on 1 — Protect Our Privacy," say the law exposes women to would-be sexual predators or uncomfortable situations. The opponents, the "Fair Anchorage" campaign, say the initiative creates practical problems for transgender people who have used such facilities for years and also value safety and privacy. They also say it's already against the law to harass or harm people in shared facilities, or wrongfully claim to be transgender.
Wednesday afternoon, the Yes on 1 campaign sent an email blast criticizing Fair Anchorage for using comments by the Anchorage police chief in ads without the chief's permission.
One version of the ad, which appeared online and in mailings, said "Anchorage Police Department agrees: Prop 1 won't make us safer." It featured a quote from the chief, Justin Doll, telling Anchorage Assembly members in a December committee meeting that his department was "not particularly concerned" the city's existing law was causing safety problems in restrooms.
Critics say the ad suggested the chief had taken a stance in support of the proposition. In a Wednesday appearance on the Mike Porcaro show on 650 KENI, Doll stressed that he and the Anchorage Police Department were staying neutral.
Doll said Fair Anchorage had emailed him that day to apologize and to promise to discontinue the ad campaigns featuring him. He said his comments in the December meeting had been used in conjunction with other messaging to imply support.
In a statement Thursday, the manager of the Fair Anchorage campaign, Kati Ward, said the campaign had accurately quoted Doll.
"While we understand the need to remain neutral, we stand by our use of quoting him directly," Ward said.
Ballots in the election were mailed on March 13. Jim Minnery, the president of Alaska Family Action, the group leading the Yes on 1 campaign, said he believed Doll's presence in the ads improperly influenced some people to vote against the initiative.
On Thursday, Fair Anchorage sent its own critical email blast about Yes on 1 campaign ads. The email said one ad exploited a homeless, vulnerable transgender woman, while another ad featured a testimonial about locker room harassment from a woman who did not live in Alaska.
Yes on 1 has released two 30-second ads recently. The first shows a woman referred to as "Kate," who claims a transgender person watched women in a locker room shower and that staff members did nothing to prevent it. The location of the incident isn't clear in the ad.
INTO, an LGBT lifestyle magazine, reported Kate is actually Kate Ives, a Minnesotan who told a similar story on the floor of the Minnesota Legislature in 2016.
INTO followed up with Minnery and he told the magazine that local residents who had approached the Yes campaign were "afraid to tell their stories."
"Kate has been harassed and threatened for simply being uncomfortable with a man in the women's shower," Minnery told the magazine. "We live in upside down times when people are fearful for speaking up on such a common sense issue. We're so grateful for Kate voicing the concerns of women here in Anchorage in the same position."
A second 30-second ad released this week by Yes on 1 described a discrimination complaint filed on Feb. 1 with the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission against a downtown shelter for homeless women.
"A man claiming to be a woman tried to enter a shelter for abused women in Anchorage," the ad says. "He wanted to sleep and shower with the women. Now the man is claiming gender identity discrimination and is using Anchorage law to force his way in."
The ad does not directly mention the Hope Center, previously the Downtown Soup Kitchen, which offers shelter to up to 50 homeless women each night.
The ad features security camera footage from a nearby parking garage. Charlee Laurie, the marketing and outreach manager for the Hope Center, told INTO the "Yes on 1" campaign did not ask the shelter before featuring the situation in the ad. Laurie also said the agency does follow city laws that ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in public accommodations, and the shelter has housed transgender women in the past.
Laurie did not respond to an email Thursday. Kevin Clarkson, an attorney for the Hope Center, wrote in an email that the agency was not participating in the Yes on 1 campaign. He had previously argued the shelter was an "intimate facility" that would be affected by Prop. 1.
Minnery said the Yes on 1 campaign was noting a complaint had been filed, not speaking on behalf of the Hope Center. He said the bigger question was whether city laws should require the shelter to let a biological man in. Prop. 1 would let the Hope Center set its own policies, Minnery said.
The person who filed the complaint, Samantha Coyle, said in an interview last week that she is a transgender woman and the women's shelter denied her services, calling her a male. The Hope Center has said that Coyle was denied on two occasions, once for being intoxicated and then for coming at the wrong time of day, but not for gender-related reasons. But Clarkson had said the shelter did not want to allow a biological man inside, and also pointed to Coyle's criminal record, which included a 2008 robbery conviction, to back up concerns.
Coyle said she was on the street when she tried to get into the shelter and needed help. Her left eye was split open. The night before, the Hope Center had said Coyle was turned away from the Brother Francis Shelter for fighting.
Coyle said years of inner turmoil over her gender identity led her to drugs and alcohol, and that led her to crime.
"It got me in prison, hiding it," Coyle said.
She said that when she got out of prison in April 2016 she began living as a woman named Samantha.
"I'm gender-female, I dress as a woman, and I am a woman," Coyle said.
It isn't yet known whether Coyle's complaint will be upheld. To qualify for transgender protections, the person must prove, through medical history and evidence of care or treatment of their gender identity, that their gender identity is "sincerely held, core to a person's gender-related self identity, and not being asserted for an improper purpose." The Equal Rights Commission typically takes months to investigate complaints.
In a statement to media on Thursday, Ward, the manager of the Fair Anchorage campaign, accused the Yes on 1 campaign of taking advantage of Coyle's vulnerability for political purposes, and for misrepresenting the Hope Center.
"Exploiting a homeless shelter and a transgender woman without their permission in an attempt to deceive voters is cruel and not what we stand for as Alaskans," Ward said.
Anchorage is holding its first-ever mail-ballot election. The last day to return a ballot is April 3.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of a security camera near the Hope Center shelter. The camera was on a parking garage, not the Hope Center.