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Alaska Makes State History in About 12 Minutes

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Early Tuesday morning, the Alaska House State Affairs Committee held the first public hearing in state history for a bill protecting LGBT Alaskans from discrimination.
Committee chair Bob Lynn (R-Anchorage) opened the twelve minute hearing with a bit of commentary:

I think it is an important bill…. There’s been tremendous cultural changes going on around the world and certainly here in the United States. And it’s, frankly, it’s a sign of the times that we’re considering legislation such as this.

The bill’s sponsor, Juneau Democrat Beth Kerttula listened as her staffer, Elizabeth Bolling, introduced the legislation.

House Bill 139 protects Alaskans from overt discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression. HB139 will protect citizens from discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, financing, or credit….

She spoke of the bill’s importance for military returning to civilian life:

“These men and women return from service, where they are protected, and enter civilian life where there is no protection. It can be a struggle for returning vets to find employment and accommodation.”

Lynn asked about Anchorage’s most recent failure to enact similar policy by way of popular vote. He asked if there were any differences between HB139 and 2012’s Proposition 5.
Bolling said the only significant difference was that Kerttula’s bill included language protecting gender expression, a term that confused both Lynn and Wes Keller (R-Wasilla). Keller asked if there was a difference between expression and behavior. Expression, Bolling said, included nonverbal actions like hand holding, hugging, and kissing.
Neither seemed to grasp that holding hands with the person you love, in Alaska, can get you fired.
Palmer Republican Shelley Hughes had another question: “[Current law] lists race, religion, color, national origin, age, and sex. So, sex is already one of those. So, can you tell me why that isn’t adequate, and why you feel this additional item needs to be listed?”
Bolling stated that she didn’t know.
The law says that I can’t get fired for being a man. My gender, or sex, is protected. That gender has nothing to do with my sexual orientation. I can get fired if I am romantically involved with another man. That sort of discrimination is legally permitted. That’s why we’re talking about this. That’s why we won’t stop talking about this.
The failure to convey that distinction was disappointing.
Doug Isaacson (R-North Pole) and Hughes stumbled over another part of Bolling’s introductory statement  emphasizing how “passing HB139 protects not just people who are homosexual, but those who are heterosexual as well.”
Kerttula’s staffer mentioned that if a heterosexual wished to join PFLAG or Pride Chorus, they could be refused admission because of their sexual orientation.
Isaacson pointed out that churches enjoy an existing exemption, allowing them to discriminate. This is codified to protect our First Amendment right to the freedom of religion. Churches are free to restrict employment to people who share the same doctrinal beliefs. But he conflated a lawful religious exemption that exists with a non-religious exemption that does not: “Why wouldn’t PFLAG or some of these other places be able to not hire heterosexuals if that didn’t fit into their culture.”
Bolling correctly answered: “Simply because it’s not provided for in the law.”
There are two exemptions to anti-discrimination laws.
The first exemption grants that “a physical fitness facility may limit public accommodation to only males or only females to protect the privacy interests of its users.” Bolling referred to this as the “Curves” exemption, referencing a national chain of fitness centers catering exclusively to women.
The statute quickly follows up by saying that this “does not apply to swimming pools or golf courses.” Because, as discrimination goes historically, there’s been a bit of a problem there.
The second exemption is set up for religious institutions:

Any organization operated for charitable or educational purposes and supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization is not prohibited from limiting admission to or giving preference to persons of the same religion or denomination or otherwise making a hiring decision that will promote the religious principles for which it is established or maintained.

PFLAG and Pride Chorus do not fit under either category and would not exempted. Both are also inclusive organizations. Excluding people is antithetical to their respective stated purposes.

Lynn apologetically stated that time constraints would not allow the hearing to include public testimony, despite what he described as “a number of people” in queue to speak. Lawmakers were needed elsewhere, to talk about important stuff, like blowing up our judicial council and nullifying possible background checks for gun purchases. He asked, instead, that those waiting to speak submit written testimony.

And with that, the hearing was called to a close.

HB139 will not become law this session. We knew that. But it also does not go away. Legislation lasts two years. Kerttula’s bill will be back when Juneau reconvenes next January.

It might be a good idea to make good on Bob Lynn’s suggestion to encourage your representatives to be sure and revisit the matter.

1 COMMENT

  1. The organization Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, PFLAG, consists mainly of straight relatives. Painful folks were not better informed.

  2. There were a lot of people better prepared to answer these questions both on hold on the phone and in the room, but nobody was permitted to testify and Bolling wasn’t permitted to call on those better prepared to clarify, though the other bill heard during the same hearing had at least that option. In that sense, it was very disappointing. I was also disappointed with how dismissive Isaacson seemed with so little discussion on the bill.
    I was pretty surprised at just how uninformed our legislators are on the very basics of sex, sexuality, gender and gender expression — thought maybe I shouldn’t be?
    I think it was heard in part to provide hearing experience for Bolling, a student intern.
    One attendee, who has been fighting her whole life for equality, was just happy it was heard, calling it “a foot in the door.”
    Maybe it’s my age, my education and my location in Alaska’s liberal bastion, but I had hoped for better.

    • Bolling shouldn’t be held responsible for not knowing the answer to every question they could have asked. It was just frustrating to watch when I knew there were people on the line who could have answered the questions. Lots of education yet to be done, it seems.

      • Agreed that Bolling shouldn’t be held responsible and that it is frustrating that she wasn’t able to defer to those she had available to answer these questions. She did it right by having expert testimony lined up.

        • It wasn’t meant with any disrespect to Rep. Kerttula’s staff. She handled herself admirably, especially given the circumstance. I just wish there was a better repudiation of Hughes’s comment. And Isaacson is an idiot.

  3. First of all John, this is the first time I’ve stopped by the Commons in a while – it looks so great and this article is fantastic! I’m by no means an expert but thought I could clarify something a bit.
    “[Current law] lists race, religion, color, national origin, age, and sex. So, sex is already one of those. So, can you tell me why that isn’t adequate, and why you feel this additional item needs to be listed?”
    I liked your answer but to be a bit more pointed – there is a difference between gender and sex. Particularly as the federal government handles it. Gender identity is needed and not covered by the protection of sex because it doesn’t protect transgender people and the multitude of other identities that don’t find themselves in the male/female sex dichotomy the current state law offers folks. I’m not sure if Alaska legislatures, particularly these ones are ready to hear that but something to think about.