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Study: Discrimination persists against Anchorage LGBT

Ben Anderson

Following a long and very public debate, the Anchorage Assembly in August 2009 passed an ordinance by a vote of 7-4 that would ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity in issues of housing and employment. Mayor Dan Sullivan vetoed the legislation a week later, citing insufficient evidence that discrimination was occurring against members of Alaska’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) community.

“My review shows that there is clearly a lack of quantifiable evidence necessitating this ordinance,” Sullivan said in a statement explaining the veto.

In 2009, the Assembly declined to overturn Sullivan’s veto, lacking the votes, and the ordinance -- and the heavy emotional toll on both supporters and critics that coincided with the lengthy public discourse -- faded away.

Now, a preliminary report for a new study, titled the “Anchorage LGBT Discrimination Survey,” looks to provide just the “quantifiable evidence” that Sullivan had said was lacking. It surveys 268 members of Anchorage’s LGBT community on issues of everyday life, employment and housing as it relates to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Although the full report isn’t due out until December, the preliminary report has some pretty sobering numbers: 76 percent of the survey respondents reported some verbal abuse or harassment related to their sexual orientation or their gender orientation, while 44 percent said they’ve been harassed at work. And 10 percent say they’ve been denied a lease on a place to stay, even when otherwise qualified.

The study comes at a bit of an opportune time, too: in September, a campaign called One Anchorage began pushing for a law similar to the vetoed ordinance, but in the form of a ballot proposition to be voted on in 2012. The proposition language reads:

Shall the current Municipal Code sections providing legal protections against discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, marital status, age, physical disability, and mental disability be amended to include protections on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender identity?

The One Anchorage campaign is still in the midst of a 90-day signature-gathering and verification period. The proposed initiative needs 5,800 signatures to qualify for the April ballot. The campaign did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

Melissa S. Green, the principal investigator and author of the new study, said that the timing was merely coincidental. According to Green, the need for new data on LGBT discrimination in Alaska became apparent following the Assembly debate and Mayor Sullivan’s veto, and has been in the works since September 2010.

During that time, the most recent studies on LGBT life and discrimination in Alaska were “1 in 10: A Profile of Alaska’s Gay and Lesbian Community,” a survey of 734 gay, lesbian and bisexual respondents taken in 1986; and “Identity Reports: Sexual Orientation Bias in Alaska,” coauthored by Green in 1989.

Green, who also serves as editor of the LGBT blog Bent Alaska, said that the decision to focus the new study on Anchorage at first was borne out of an uncertainty over what might happen next following the failed ordinance in 2009. Quantifying statewide data would also be much more time-consuming.

“‘One in 10’ was statewide,” Green said, “but discrimination was only one small part of what ‘One in 10’ was.” She said there was a need to get more specific with the new study.

“A more local, smaller range of questions was something we could do a lot quicker,” she said, adding that the plan is to eventually take the study to the statewide level.

The study is authored by Green and published with support from several LGBT activism groups, such as Equality Works and Identity, Inc. Asked if her position in the local LGBT community and her authorship of an LGBT study could be perceived as a conflict of interest or a potential weakness for critics of the study, Green said that there was a "Catch-22" inherent in the way the 2009 ordinance was vetoed.

“We’re being told that on one hand we don’t have any evidence, but we’re not going to have help getting that evidence in any way by having a Municipality-sponsored study or from the equal rights commission,” Green said. “But then when we go and get the data ourselves, it’s suspect, because it’s a queer who did it.”

Additionally, Green said, it’s actually helpful for someone researching LGBT issues to be a member of the LGBT community.

“For any surveys that we do of our population, we need to use our social networks, because our population is hard to identify otherwise,” she said, since some people may not choose to identify their sexual orientation or gender identity to someone they don’t know or don’t trust.

The survey would actually seem to back this up. In the preliminary survey results, 73 percent of respondents reported hiding their sexual orientation or gender identity from their employer or coworkers.

Green, who has some background in research but does not consider herself “a specialist,” does admit that it would be wise to wait for the complete study because there were “some methodological issues and they need to be addressed honestly,” and will be in the final survey write-up, she said.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Sullivan said that the mayor -- who has been preparing for and attending the Mayor’s Education Summit -- had not yet seen the preliminary results of the study.

Despite the data that Sullivan said was lacking during the 2009 ordinance debate, the fact remains that data such as that presented in the study likely won’t be enough to change some people’s minds. Evidenced by the high emotional response to the last round of debate, the issue is one that as often appeals to the gut as much as the mind, for advocates on both sides.

Green admits that any amendment to city law won’t be some miraculous answer to the problems faced by the LBGT community.

“Any ordinance is not going to change people’s minds, necessarily,” Green said, “but it does provide some sort of legal protection.”

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com.