By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

Anti-discrimination bill gets first hearing in state House committee

 

March 29, 2023



Dozens of Alaskans testified in the state Capitol on March 20, urging lawmakers to advance a new anti-discrimination measure that would protect Alaskans from being denied housing or access to public accommodations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.

House Bill 99, from Anchorage Rep. Jennifer Armstrong, is being considered by the House Labor and Commerce Committee, which heard two hours of public testimony, almost entirely in support of the idea.

Members of the committee have received more than 1,000 emails — mostly form letters — in support of the legislation, and 42 of the 44 people who testified in person or over the phone March 20 said they supported the bill. Many justified their support by sharing stories of discrimination that they or others they know have experienced.

Jesse Saiki, now living in Anchorage, described attending Wasilla High School after coming out as a nonbinary person.

“My friends and I have had bottles thrown at us out of cars as we walked home from school. I’ve been followed and harassed in a bathroom. I shudder when I think about those times,” they said.

Joshua Smith, a gay Air Force veteran who lives in Chugiak, said that when he and his husband bought a home, he was terrified that the lender would deny them. He didn’t mention his partner or list him in any documents.

“I wasn’t willing to gamble my future home on the potential beliefs of my Realtor or my lender. It felt necessary to have cover stories attached in advance, hoping that I did come off natural,” he said.

Though some municipalities, including Anchorage and Juneau, have adopted local ordinances that prohibit sex-based discrimination, the state of Alaska is among 20 states that have no statewide rules banning that kind of discrimination.

The March 20 hearing was the first for the bill, which would have to clear that committee and two more before it could come before House members for a vote — and then move to the Senate for its consideration. The likelihood of passage by the Legislature’s adjournment deadline in mid-May is doubtful.

Jamie Gibson was among the testifiers who noted “a huge amount of anxiety” about testifying in public because of the possibility that it could open them to discrimination, but each testifier who mentioned that anxiety said it was worth the risk to show support.

“Not being discriminated against should be a right that everybody in this country should have,” Gibson said.

Terry Sullivan, who described herself as a 70-something grandmother, broke into tears during her testimony as she shared worries about her transgender grandchild. “I had no idea Alaska was as discriminatory as it is until I had a transgender grandkid,” she said.

Several speakers said that without the bill, employers in the state will be at a disadvantage when competing for workers.

Joshua Knicely of North Pole just finished a doctorate at the University of Alaska. “​​Two weeks ago, I had a postdoc lined up to work here and do science here in Alaska. And I’m debating whether or not I’ll actually follow through with that, because of all this discrimination that we’re seeing.”

Amber O’Brien of Anchorage identified herself as the mother of a queer daughter and said kids like hers face an uncertain future in Alaska. There’s no reason not to pass the bill, she said.

“Equality doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s not pie, we’re not going to run out,” she said.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.

 

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