EDITOR’S NOTE: This is not meant to serve as the greatest of all buzz kills. Really. Judge Timothy Burgess’s recent ruling, which added Alaska to the map of “freedom to marry” states, is as huge as it is awesome. (Seriously. Go us!) But, having said that…
Over the past year and change, the national focus on equal protection jurisprudence for LGBT Americans has understandably centered around marriage equality. With last Sunday’s ruling in Alaska striking down the state’s same-sex marriage ban — and the Supreme Court’s decision not to review the state’s appeal or issue an emergency stay — the number of states recognizing same-sex partners has for the first time has claimed a majority; 30 in total (plus D.C.), with several additional states likely to follow suit quickly.
Marriage equality is often understood — especially by opponents — as the final barrier standing in the way of equal rights. The notion serves as a sobering reminder of the information gap that exists between what full equality means and where marriage equality actually leaves LGBT citizens.
Alaska was a pioneer in discrimination; the state ban enacted by voters in 1998 was the first in the nation. In 2014, the 49th state is struggling to keep up with the tide of equal protection jurisprudence for LGBT citizens, even in the light of this weekend’s decision.
Alaska is the nation’s newest marriage equality state. With that new right, however, marriage equality fundamentally becomes less of a fait accompli, and much more an open door to more vulnerability for LGBT couples tying the knot.
As Freedom to Marry points out, citing a 2004 report from the U.S. General Accounting office:
[T]here are at least 1,138 tangible benefits, protections, rights, and responsibilities that marriage brings couples and their kids — and that’s just at the federal level. Add in state and local law, and the policies of businesses, employers, universities, and other institutions, and it is clear that the denial of marriage to couples and their kids makes a substantial impact on every area of life, from raising kids, building a life together, and caring for one another, to retirement, death, and inheritance.
So, imagine this scenario: You are a gay man or woman in Alaska. The ban on same-sex marriage has been lifted. Monday morning, you go down to the Bureau of Vital Statistics to pick up the marriage license you applied for last week, and marry your longtime partner. Ecstatic, you head in to work, where you are promptly fired solely for being gay. Or maybe you are a renter, and happen to pass your landlord on your way out the door to work. That landlord can’t help but notice the “Just Married” placard fixed to your car in the parking lot. He tells you that you need to find a new place to live, because he doesn’t approve of your lifestyle.
A 2013 national poll found that 81 percent of Americans believe this sort of discrimination is against the law. But, in truth, this is all completely legal in Alaska. And it will remain so — even post marriage equality — until the legislature and/or local governments, including the Anchorage Assembly, do something about it.
A September report entitled “Paying an Unfair Price: The Financial Penalty for Being LGBT in America,” authored by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Movement Advancement Project (MAP), classifies Alaska as a “low equality state.” At the time of publication — which was just a month ago, but is obviously already outdated — 28 states shared the distinction; home to roughly half of the LGBT population in the United States. Besides denying marriage rights to LGBT Alaskans, being a low equality state means that they “lack access to many other basic opportunities and protections, and this has a very serious impact on their ability to make ends meet and provide for their families.”
Alaska joins 29 other states with no employment nondiscrimination law covering sexual orientation and gender identity; the same is true for a housing nondiscrimination law.
LGBT citizens also often endure overt discrimination in relation to health care; “discrimination by healthcare providers, unfair and discriminatory denials of coverage by insurance companies, and employer policies that do not allow transgender workers to obtain medical leave for transition-related care.” Alaska has no law providing LGBT inclusive insurance protections, along with 41 other states.
Equitable access to credit — helping Alaskans finance a car or mortgage, take out student loans, obtain business loans — is similarly open to discrimination. There is no state law extending credit protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender Alaskans.
All of these gaps in law affect LGBT Alaskans according to economic status — which is dually troublesome, because the same gaps have negative effects on economic status. If a higher paying job discriminates against a gay man, he is financially penalized by having to take lower wage work. If a gay woman has to move further away from her employer to find tolerant housing, that burns the pocket. And if either has difficulty finding a fiscally manageable payment plan to attain transportation to and from either, the money keeps draining.
“This makes it harder for LGBT Americans to save for the future or cover basic necessities like rent, food, and clothing,” the CAP/MAP summarizes. “In other cases, these same legal inequalities burden LGBT people with higher costs for needs like housing, healthcare, health insurance, and education.”
There is abundant data indicating that this discrimination, in fact, occurs in Anchorage.
Mel Green authored The Anchorage LGBT Discrimination Survey: Final Report in March of 2012. Green described the comprehensive report as a “collaborative project of the Alaska LGBT community and a coalition of Alaska organizations, including Identity, Inc., the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association (Four A’s), Alaskans Together for Equality (ATE), Equality Works, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alaska.”
The survey was inspired by the lack of “quantifiable evidence” of discrimination cited by Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan after he vetoed Ordinance 64, an antidiscrimination ordinance passed by the Anchorage Assembly in 2009. It also would serve as further evidence supporting a ballot initiative with the same intent, Prop 5, the same year it was published. Prop 5 would fail by a 14 point margin.
Of the 268 LGBT people surveyed in Anchorage, over three quarters reported at least one incident of namecalling and/or verbal abuse, and 44.7 percent three or more instances. And it wasn’t isolated to some time in the past which time and progress has rendered moot. It is a clear and present danger.
Of the 50 respondents who had lived in Anchorage for less than five years, 68 percent reported verbal abuse and/or namecalling; 38 percent reported threats of physical violence; 26 percent reported being followed or chased. 18 percent said they had endured property damage, 16 percent reported physical violence, and 6 percent reported sexual assault. All these were described as “due to sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender presentation.”
Specific to the absence of antidiscrimination law protecting LGBT Alaskans in their places of work, 44 percent of respondents reported they had undergone harassment for their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender presentation. 14.6 percent said they had been fired or terminated. Once again, residents living in Anchorage for less than five years reported higher rates; two-thirds said they hid their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender transition in order to avoid employment discrimination. 38 percent said they experienced harassment, and 10 reported they had been forced to leave that job as a result.
Housing found similar results, with 18.7 percent reporting harassment by a landlord or other tenants; 10.1 percent denied a lease when otherwise qualified, and 8.2 percent were either forced to move or were evicted.
Of significance is the economic status of the survey respondents. While opponents of equal rights laws often falsely advertise LGBT Americans as categorically affluent and powerful — Jim Minnery of the anti-gay Alaska Family Action/Council once described the threat of the “gay mafia” during an Anchorage town hall — the truth is much the opposite. The Williams Institute notes that LGBT people often tend to be poorer than non-LGBT people. “A full third of lesbian couples and 20.1 percent of gay male couples without a high school diploma are in poverty, compared to 18.8% of different-sex married couples,” the report finds. Additionally: “14.1% of lesbian couples and 7.7% of gay male couples receive food stamps, compared to 6.5 % of different-sex married couples.”
Green’s study showed similar realities in Anchorage. “Over half the respondents… reported household incomes of less than $60,000 in 2010…, compared with 40.5 percent of household[s] in the Municipality of Anchorage overall having household incomes of less than $60,000.” 16 percent reported household income of less than $13,530. This put them below the federal poverty level for Alaska for one-person households.
“Overall, survey respondents were more highly represented in lower income brackets,” Green summarized, “and were underrepresented in high income brackets, as compared with the total MOA population.”
As the CAP/MAP study concludes:
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans have the same worries as other Americans when it comes to paying for healthcare and other needs, finding good jobs, and saving for the future. But the LGBT population — which includes parents, workers, retirees, people of color, and people with disabilities — faces another set of challenges that can result in increased economic hardship. Outdated and discriminatory laws mean that lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people can work the same hours and show the same commitment to and performance on the job as their non-LGBT coworkers and nevertheless face a series of economic penalties simply because of who they are and whom they love.
Marriage equality is important and way past due. But even further past due and of increasingly critical importance once that basic fundamental right is recognized for all Alaskans are the foundational anti-discrimination laws that are severely lacking in state, and the undue costs they place on the shoulders of our LGBT friends, family, and neighbors.
Anchorage has tried and failed multiple times. The state legislature has held exactly one committee meeting to entertain the idea, dedicating 12 minutes to the topic before shelving it indefinitely. Meanwhile, legislators have taken steps backwards, enacting more discriminatory laws as recently as this past session despite court order.
Alaska’s schools offer a respite. The University of Alaska Board of Regents added sexual orientation to their anti-discrimination policies in 2011. Students in the Anchorage School District enjoy the same protections. But upon graduation, they term out of them.
“While we are thrilled with this huge step forward, I just want to invite you all to keep in this movement together with us,” Executive Director of Identity, Inc. Drew Phoenix told a crowd after oral arguments in Hamby concluded. “This is not the final step, but just the first step in full legal protections for LGBT Alaskans.”
The right to marry may be the flagship of equal jurisprudence, but marriage equality will require the support of other basic fundamental rights, like equal access to housing, employment, credit, and insurance. There remains a cadre of other areas where LGBT Alaskans have endured and will continue to endure discrimination until a sufficient community response demands otherwise. Alaskans need to recognize the areas of weakness where gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens are being shouldered with an undue burden — to the detriment of all — and demand reform. Our lawmakers need to recall the oath each swore upon undertaking the duties of elected office, abandon antiquated ideological dogma, and respect the needs of their constituents.
They’re operating on borrowed time.