In its first public hearing, a bill to ban discrimination against LGBTQ people in Alaska drew overwhelming support.
In over 90 minutes of public testimony on Monday, only two out of around 40 testifiers spoke against a bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. The rest — many of them members of the LGBTQ community — supported the measure, saying it would allow LGBTQ people to feel safer in Alaska.
“Equality doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s not pie. We’re not going to run out,” Amber O’Brien, a Wasilla resident whose daughter is queer, told the House Labor and Commerce Committee.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, several days after the Daily News and ProPublica reported that the state’s policy banning discrimination against LGBTQ people in most areas was quietly dropped last year on advice from Attorney General Treg Taylor.
The bill’s supporters say they have been working on these efforts for months, and similar bills have been introduced unsuccessfully for a decade.
The House Labor and Commerce Committee is the first of three committees that must advance House Bill 99 before it can reach a vote by the entire chamber. Some testifiers acknowledged that conservative Republicans who are members of the House majority have voted against similar measures in the past.
But supporters this year, including Planned Parenthood and the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said they hoped the bill would gain more traction this session amid actions from Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy that members of the LGBTQ community say will make them less safe. That includes the governor’s proposed “parental rights” bill that would require gender-nonconforming children use bathrooms according to their sex assigned at birth, and get parental sign-off before changing the pronouns they use in school.
During the bill’s first hearing, people from across Alaska spoke about the challenges they face given the lack of statewide protections against LGBTQ discrimination, and the factors they consider when choosing to live in Alaska despite those challenges.
“I want to retire here. I pay property taxes and I help care for my aging parents and I volunteer — so I try to make Alaska better in my little ways, but I don’t feel safe here. If I lose my job because I’m gay, I could become a drain on state resources,” said Alex Berry, an Anchorage resident. “Discrimination has financial impacts in addition to the heartbreak and the immorality. I feel a fear that if HB 99 doesn’t pass, it will be another signal to the cruel people in Alaska that it’s OK to hurt or kill people they don’t like.”
Joshua Smith, an Air Force veteran who is gay, said he did not include his partner when he bought his home, out of fear he would face discrimination.
“I wasn’t willing to gamble my future home on the potential beliefs of my realtor or bank. It felt necessary to have cover stories and practice them in advance, hoping that they would come off as natural,” said Smith.
Terry Sullivan, an Anchorage resident whose grandchild is transgender, fought through tears as she addressed the committee members.
“I really hope it does change, because everybody deserves the right to be proud and happy and safe,” said Sullivan.
Mike Coons, one of two testifiers who opposed the bill, and the president of an association called Concerned Conservatives of Alaska, called the measure “woke” and “garbage.”
The committee has yet to schedule the bill for a vote.