Support from LGBTQ advocates, a famous Alaska musician and at least one Republican propelled a measure to add protections for LGBTQ+ people in Alaska out of the House Labor and Commerce Committee on Monday.
This year, Anchorage Democrat Jennie Armstrong introduced a version of the bill 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 of the attorney general. The bill’s supporters say it’s been in the works for months.
The measure, House Bill 99, would enshrine protections for LGBTQ+ people in Alaska based on housing, government practices, finance and “public accommodation,” which were extended in 2021 but rescinded in August based on advice from Republican Attorney General Treg Taylor.
Versions of the bill, which would make gender identity a protected class under the state’s human rights laws, had in previous years never gained support from Republican lawmakers. But on Monday the bill advanced out of the House Labor and Commerce Committee without objection, thanks in part to support from the committee’s chair Rep. Jesse Sumner, a Wasilla Republican.
“Discrimination is wrong, and it seems like a probably good thing to restore to where we were a few months ago as far as preventing discrimination,” Sumner said in a brief interview after the committee hearing concluded.
Several hurdles remain before the bill can reach a vote by the full House. The measure heads next to the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee, where it could receive a favorable review from Democratic chair Rep. CJ McCormick of Bethel. But if it passes out of that committee, it will then be handed to the House Judiciary Committee, which includes among its members some of the most conservative legislators in the chamber. Judiciary chair Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican, has twice opposed versions of the bill, in 2019 and 2022. Vance declined on Monday to comment on the current version.
Armstrong, the sponsor of the legislation, said that the large contingency of freshmen lawmakers in the House this year — many of them much younger than their predecessors — could move the needle on advancing a bill that has long stalled. She also credited her own pansexual identity in helping persuade her colleagues.
“Being one of the first three out LGBTQ legislators, and also because the building is so much younger, I’m able to sit down one-on-one and give people the space to ask questions,” said Armstrong. “I think it’s a lot harder when you have a colleague that you like and that you work with and who has helped you and they’re sitting here saying, ‘Hey, if you vote no on this bill, you’re telling me that I’m not viewed as equal in your eyes, and you think it’s OK for me to be discriminated against.’”
Armstrong’s bill was introduced just as Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy unveiled a separate measure that would limit the rights of LGBTQ+ students in Alaska’s public schools, spurring public outcry and injecting urgency into LGBTQ+ advocates’ efforts to get the anti-discrimination measure on the books.
Portugal. The Man guitarist Eric Howk, who grew up in Wasilla, appeared in a video this month calling on Alaskans to contact their legislators to call for the bill’s passage. In a public hearing of the bill, only two out of more than 40 testifiers opposed the bill. Those in favor included LGBTQ+ people who had faced fear of discrimination in housing and the workplace.
While the bill passed out of committee without objection, Sumner was the only Republican who gave his full-throated support for the measure. In a report attached to the bill, Sumner joined the two Democrats on the committee — Zack Fields of Anchorage and Ashley Carrick of Fairbanks — in recommending for the bill to pass. Republican Reps. Dan Saddler of Eagle River, Stanley Wright of Anchorage and Justin Ruffridge of Soldotna all indicated they had no recommendation, essentially remaining neutral. Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole, recommended amending the bill.