“Well, what have we had? 25 hours of public testimony on this,” Assemblyman Chris Birch grumbled into his microphone. “I, you know, it’s certainly not the way I intended to spend the summer.”
This was the evening of August 11, 2009. The assembly was preparing to vote on Ordinance 64 – an anti-discrimination ordinance that would have extended legal protection to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Anchorage residents.
“We live in a tolerant community,” he told the packed crowd in the assembly chambers below the Loussac library, after an entire summer of special meetings in which hundreds testified for and against the measure. Birch told them that they really needed to reassess their priorities. He said he hadn’t heard any evidence of discrimination that warranted a newly protected class. And then he voted against the measure.
Four years later, Chris Birch still sits on the assembly. The bill he voted against passed, but was vetoed by the then-and-now-mayor, Dan Sullivan. A failed ballot measure later, you can still be fired for “the gay” in Anchorage.
Yesterday, an interesting scene unfolded at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. Chris Birch was there as always, front and center, when attendants were asked a couple of questions:
“Raise your hand if you know a gay person.”
Mr. Birch’s hand went up, along with everyone else in the crowded room at the Dena’ina Center.
“Raise your hand if you don’t know a gay person.”
All hands stayed down.
“Okay, great, well then I don’t have to introduce myself so that everyone knows a gay person.”
Nervous laughs indicated that Justin Nelson’s icebreaker worked. At least a little bit.
Nelson is the president of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NLGCC), a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to expanding the economic opportunities and advancements of the LGBT business community. He was invited to speak to the group by Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber president, Andrew Halcro, believes his efforts fit neatly in line with the goals of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, whose “Live. Work. Play.” initiative seeks to make Anchorage the number one city in America by 2025. This requires both bringing new people in and retaining the people we start out with.
Halcro said that one critical area that the city needed to work on was tolerance. Because excluding an entire minority group doesn’t seem like a good plan for economic growth. Especially give the economic power that comes with that minority group.
The U.S. LGBT community represented $790 billion in consumer spending power this year. By the end of next year, that figure is projected to rise to $880 billion. Nelson told the crowd:
If LGBT people had our own country, [which] would be a fabulous country. It would be wonderful, with sunshine and rainbows and unicorns. But we would be the twentieth largest economy in the world. Would you not do business with the twentieth largest economy in the world if it meant increasing your revenues; if it meant increasing your footprint; if it meant finding the right kinds of candidates to come into a job market that continues to have fewer and fewer employees for more and more jobs? I don’t think so.
But the people steering the good ship Anchorage, thus far, have disagreed. You can’t take advantage of the economic advantages of a minority so long as you espouse exclusive policies that discourage them from buying in.
The average LGBT employee spends between 10 and 25 percent of his or her workweek worrying about being discriminated against or being fired because they’re gay or a lesbian…. As a social justice advocate, I find that absolutely horrible. It is horrible. But, as a business man, I think it’s even worse. Because that means that 10 to 25 percent of that employee’s productivity is out the window every week, and that impacts my bottom line.
As Justin Nelson spoke, I was reminded of all the Ordinance 64 testimony that belabored this very point. Was Chris Birch listening any closer this time? Or did he still think the conversation was a waste of time? Mayor Sullivan must have – he skipped Monday’s meeting altogether.
“Some people say, ‘Well, why do you have to bring your sexual orientation into the office? Who cares?’,” Nelson posed as a hypothetical. “I don’t have to. But when I can be fired for it, it becomes a little bit of an issue.”
I remembered the story a friend of mine told the assembly back during that Summer of Hate. One fateful night, she was feeling under the weather while stuck at work. Her partner brought some chicken soup. That was the first time her sexual orientation had ever entered the work place. Except, really, it didn’t. Chicken soup and a thoughtful delivery entered the workplace. But, whatever. She wasn’t fired outright; the atmosphere at work grew hostile, and eventually became too much to take. She quit. She didn’t out herself as a lesbian as much as her boss outed herself as a bit of a wretched person. My friend lost a job she cared about and her employer lost a dedicated employee.
Years later, that still seems like a horribly dumb transaction.
My senators agree. One of them, Lisa Murkowski, delivered a video to today’s meeting. She spoke to her support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (the national version of Ordinance 64), and reemphasized Halcro and Nelson’s prescription for how to make Anchorage the number one city: “So, how do we attract and maintain our best and our brightest? Well, one way is workplace policies that promote positive work environments.”
“The ability to bring to the office your best game and the ability to live free of discrimination; I don’t think that these are radical ideas,” Justin Nelson said, concluding his remarks. I don’t think it’s radical either.
But I also worry that the sentiment falls well short of a plan. As encouraging as it was to hear the Chamber entertain the lecture, that’s essentially all they did: entertain it. Tolerate it. There were no appeals for changes in public policy. AEDC’s Bill Popp performed rhetorical gymnastics, answering a question about how to encourage the growth of LGBT-run businesses without saying the word “gay.”
Tuesday’s Chamber of Commerce “Make It Monday” forum took huge steps, but nowhere in particular. We’ve identified a path that we should go down; that makes sense to go down, from an economic, social justice, and neighborly standpoint. And it feels like we’re starting to flirt with the idea of trying to recognize it, officially, as a destination – somehow, some way, some day. But we haven’t really moved beyond the planning stage.