So yes, finally I have a little time to write up my account of last Tuesday’s public hearing before the Anchorage Assembly on the AO 2009-64, the Anchorage equal rights ordinance.
In the parking lot
I got there pretty early on Tuesday, June 9, first parking and walking over to the nearby post office to mail my kid’s cell phone to him. (A couple of weekends ago he took the train down from Denali Park, where he’s working this summer, and forgot to take back the cell phone back with him.) When I walked back across the parking lot — at this point full of cars & trucks belonging to regular everyday library patrons — someone hailed me by name. Lo & behold, there were my new friends Heather James and John Aronno, who I’d only met last Friday. They are, you might recall, the people behind the website SOSAnchorage.net, which started by debunking the misinformation on the Prevo church-fundraising-through-homophobia website of similar name (the dot com/dot org version), & has since continued to comment on the ongoing fight for equal rights for the LGBT people of Anchorage. John also has another blog he recently started called Alaska Commons. We chatted for a few minutes, & then I went on to check out how things were shaping up on the Loussac Library’s first floor, where the Anchorage Assembly chambers and Wilda Marson Theatre are located.
“Your powerful Christian Left”
There I found another friend I had last seen Friday night, but in this case one I’ve known far longer — Dianne O’Connell. Amongst other things, Dianne is a retired Presbyterian minister (ordained November 15, 1987), & has served as campus minister with University Community Ministries in Anchorage, as a chaplain at Alaska Psychiatric Institute and Providence Alaska Medical Center, and as Interfaith Caregivers coordinator at Providence, all that time continuing as a member of Immanuel Presbyterian Church. Which is undoubtedly how I first met her, because Immanuel is my brother’s family’s church, & I’ve gotten to know many of its members over the years, & every one of its pastors since I first came up to Anchorage in 1982.
Immanuel is a More Light church, which amongst other things means it shares in the More Light Presbyterians mission of working toward “the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA).” Dianne is as committed to this mission as everyone I’ve met at Immanuel, all of them witness the dishonesty of those who claim that all believing Christians condemn homosexuality & transgenderism. And that, of course, is why Dianne was there. So of course we chatted for a few minutes too. She was still feeling simultaneously complimented & surprised by fellow Immanuel member Amanda Coyne’s description, in an article just posted in the Alaska Dispatch, of her and Immanuel’s pastor Rev. Dr. John J. Carey, as “your powerful Christian Left.” Let me tell you something, Dianne: it might not be loud, it might not draw a lot of attention to itself, but the care that you & all the Immanuel family give strangers and friends alike every day as a matter of course is more powerful than words can say. And I hope I’ve embarrassed you too. I will certainly never forget all that all of you at Immanuel did for my little family in the early days of our taking care of a very hurt little boy, and the welcome you still show us when we visit.
Okay, okay, enough mushiness!
Blue & red
After a few minutes, we went entered the library to find a few people already there, most of them in shades of blue, indicating their probable support of the ordinance. This was at perhaps 2:30 or 2:45 PM; at that point, only one person there was wearing red, which I had just learned an hour or so before was the color that ordinance opponents were going to be wearing. More people began slowly to arrive. Mike Travis of Anchorage GLSEN — the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network — went around offering ordinance supporters sashes in all the colors of the rainbow that had been used for a few years by the now-defunct Pride chorus. (I took a green one, after my name.) Shortly after 3:00, a security guard opened the Assembly chambers and those of us present went in & began choosing seats near the front of the room.
And that’s where I stayed for the rest of the evening except for two brief forays out (once to sign up to testify & once to use the restroom). I started getting a little goofy — I asked someone if we were supposed to be the Jets or the Sharks, & pretty soon was snapping my fingers & humming songs from “West Side Story.” But I settled down, spent some time helping a friend edit her testimony so that it could be read in under three minutes, the time that each person testifying would be permitted. By the time we got done with that, members of the Assembly had begun to arrive and most of the seats within the chambers had been filled. I’d say that the front three-fifths of the room were dominated mostly by ordinance supporters, mostly in shades of blue and/or sporting Equality Works buttons, which my friend Steve was distributing, though some empty seats in the front were filled by ordinance opponents in red. I felt bad at one point when a couple in red were asking about empty seats in our row & I was unable to answer them because my friend and I were halfway through timing her testimony. I wasn’t really trying to be rude! Fortunately, they were still able to get seated in our row four or five seats down, and as far as I know everyone was able to coexist peaceably enough through the entire evening, despite our opposing positions on the ordinance.
Around 3:40 we were told that to sign up to testify we had to go out into the lobby. Since we were seated near the front of the room, that meant a lot of people closer to the lobby were lined up ahead of us. I took the opportunity as I waited in line to take a few photos, & again found that everyone was behaving civilly whether they were in red or blue. I even shared a couple of good-humored jokes with the guy in red behind me. Eventually, I signed on as (I think) number 93 to testify. Which led me to think (as eventually proved true), that they wouldn’t get to me this night.
“Long night to come”
Okay, so back to my seat. I was sitting right next to Heather James, who had her laptop & began a live-blog on her SOSAnchorage.net site, which she kept up through the night — when she could get it to load, anyway. I finally figured out that I needed to go into the settings on my iPod Touch in order to pick up one of the Loussac Library’s WiFi connections, so now & then I’d turn it on & tweet about the goings on — my Twitter feed also updates my Facebook status, & later than night when I got home I checked out my contacts reactions to stuff I tweeted about. My first tweet was at 5:07 PM, & said, “Assembly meeting begun. Room full, blue & red.” The second, at 5:16 PM, said, “180 names on testimony list. Long night to come.” Somewhere in the middle of everything were procedural announcements to the effect that people who couldn’t fit in the Assembly chambers could sit in the Wilda Marston Theatre; overflow after that would go to the lobby.
The Assembly got down to business: although the main business of the night was public testimony on the ordinance, there was still five & a half pages of agenda to get through first — & a lot of it pretty dry stuff for people unfamiliar with the issues at hand, or unaquainted with parliamentary procedure. Probably the most interesting part of the early agenda was three resolutions honoring long-term Municipality of Anchorage employees, who were perhaps a little discomfited to be on the agenda on such a discordant night, but simultaneously honored by the enthusiastic applause from everyone present, blue & red alike. This, at least, everyone could agree on: the well-deserved recognition and thanks due to 19-year MOA electrician Michael B. Swensen, 30-year APD police dispatcher Pamela J. Provost, and liason to the Assembly Mike Abbott. I’m pretty sure it was the last unanimous applause of the evening.
Then back to the drier parts of the agenda again. I occupied myself part of that time editing & timing (by “reading aloud in my head) my own planned testimony, though I was so far down on the list that I doubted I’d be reading it. Occasionally I’d check my email & Twitter. Around 6:00 PM, Assembly Chair Debbie Ossiander gave us the opportunity to take a restroom break. In order to make sure that the people who went out were the only people who came back in, we were instructed to give our IDs to police officers at the door out to the lobby. A young woman in red just ahead of me had forgotten her ID, & made up for it by taking a photo of herself on with her cell phone’s camera & leaving it with an officer.
I caught a few photos in the lobby on the way to & fro — former two-term Anchorage mayor & two-term Governor Tony Knowles; a couple of beauty queens in tiaras just outside the Wilda Marston Theatre, one of whom I assumed was the recently crowned Mrs. Alaska U.S.A. who I’d just read about before coming to the Loussac; a couple of friends, Mary Parker of the UAA Social Work Department & Mary Elizabeth Rider.
Then back inside, & more Assembly business. Finally, at 6:55 PM, I could tweet, “Testimony on ordinance now beginning.”
If there’s one regret I have for how I handled the evening, it’s that I didn’t keep better notes of the names of speakers. Some I know because I know the speakers, or recognize them for their importance in Anchorage or Alaska politics. The notes I did keep were mainly of the general arguments that witnesses made, & a running tally of how many opposed & how many favored the ordinance. Some of the arguments against the ordinance:
- Julia O’Malley “testimony” (i.e., Julia O’Malley’s article in the ADN about meeting Jerry Prevo, in which she said she’d personally experienced no discrimination; never mind that one cannot generalize everyone’s experience from just one person’s experience)
- Religious freedom
- “Too quick” (i.e., the assertion that the ordinance was being acted on too quickly)
- Offensive to some witnesses for LGBT people to compare their struggles to the struggle for black civil rights
- “Bona fide religion” language in ordinance problematic
- Acting Mayor Matt Claman “just trying to make a name for himself”
- Anchorage already is an equal opportunity place, so we don’t need to add sexual orientation to Title V
- No evidence or documentation of sexual orientation discrimination in Anchorage; or else “not enough to justify such a big change in the law”
- One witness stated that her minor daughter had encountered a person she was certain was a man in a public restroom in the Dimond area of South Anchorage
- The ordinance “pushes gay lifestyles”
- The “Roman Empire” argument (claiming that acceptance of homosexuality inevitably leads to the breakdown of civilization)
- Sexual orientation is a “choice”; there is no gene for being gay
- The ordinance is a “bad research project” or “social experimentation”
- The ordinance would bring about too much litigation
- The case of the photographer in New Mexico who was made to pay attorney’s fees when the New Mexico Human Rights Commission ruled that she had discriminated by refusing to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony
- Homosexuality and transgenderism/transexualism are “against the Bible”
Testimony in favor of the ordinance included:
- At least nine firsthand accounts of experiences of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity
- Four or five accounts of discrimination that had been witnessed, including by parents of children who had been discriminated against
- The wrongness of discrimination
- The Human Genome Project hasn’t discovered the genes responsible for all kinds of human conditions, so saying that there’s been no discovery yet of a “gay” gene proves nothing
- Several witnesses testified that they had been homosexual for as long as they remembered, & had no sense of having “chosen” it
- Difference & diversity as being beneficial to society
- Diversity of workforce as good for business
- Christian acceptance of LGBT people
- Problems with the current draft of the ordinance’s language on “biological gender” in reference to gender-segregated language, with a request that the language be replaced by a less problematic construction
- Evolving understanding of civil rights as defined & given room for in both the Alaska Constitution and the Anchorage equal rights code (Title V)
By no means are these comprehensive lists of the arguments pro or con. If anyone cares to analyze it in depth, John Aronno has committed to transcribing the recording he made of the proceedings. I’ll probably make use of his transcription myself, when posted, just to help me remember the names of some of the witnesses. For example, I don’t remember the names of I believe it was three pastors who spoke against the ordinance on religious grounds, or the names of their churches, save to know that none of the three was Jerry Prevo (as I had tweeted at 6:37 PM, “Prevo apparently didn’t manage to get into assembly chambers or wilda marston theatre”). One of them was also forceful in his condemnation of the comparison of the fight for equal rights for LGBT people with the black civil rights movement, which was part of his own family’s legacy.
I have a better memory for the names of one of pastors — in fact a priest — who spoke vigorously in favor of the ordinance: Father Michael Burke, Rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. A representative of the 28-member Alaska United Methodist Conference came forward to read the organization’s statement calling for “equal rights regardless of sexual orientation” (which the Anchorage Daily News had reported on in an article the day before).
Other testimony that stands out in my memory: two transwomen, one whom I have met a few times, with their stories of rampant discrimination. Family law attorney Karla Huntington (who at one point represented my partner & I towards protecting my partner’s nephew from being forced into the custody of his abusive father — as I tweeted during her testimony, “Karla Huntington rocks”) & former Alaska Public Defender Barbara Brink both spoke from a legal perspective, arguing in favor of the ordinance and offering constructive criticism of the ordinance as currently drafted. Another attorney, Allison Mendel, testified about her own experience of discrimination within the legal profession. Equality Works spokesperson Jacqueline Buckley has a history of being discriminated against about as long as her history as an advocate for equality. Chuck O’Connell (husband of a one of the aforementioned members of the “powerful Christian left”) gave a powerful recitation of the history of American bigotry as described by the slurs that once were commonly accepted words in American society — much like certain slurs now used for LGBT people.
Perhaps the best known opponent of the ordinance that night was former lieutenant governor Loren Leman. (Heather James later gave me a special thanks “for keeping the mood light and correcting my spelling numerous times” as she live-blogged the hearing — I regret to tell you that I gave you the wrong spelling for Mr. Leman’s surname!) Mr. Leman seemed taken aback when Assembly Chair Ossiander had to repeat two or three times a request for him to state his name — maybe he thought he was so well-known he didn’t need to? obviously, it was necessary to have him say it for the record– & again, when his three minutes was up, that she wouldn’t let him keep on talking. (Not unless one of the Assembly had questions for him, but none did.) His testimony was also striking for his assertion that unlike every personal characteristic already contained in Title V, sexual orientation was “behavioral” rather than intrinsic. That drew a lot of disbelieving looks from the people sitting around me. Even assuming that it was a “choice” to be lesbian, gay, or transgender (which most of us would dispute), well, as Heather wrote in her live-blog, “I had forgotten that religion was assigned at birth.” I was quite a bit ruder in what I tweeted: “Excuse me doofus Lehman: religion is behavioral.” A later witness pointed out that marital status, too, was behaviorally based.
Another prominent anti-ordinance witness was Dave Bronson of the Alaska Family Council. What was especially remarkable about his testimony was his free admission that many of the witnesses we had already heard had suffered from discrimination (one of two anti-ordinance witnesses I remember making that admission). “I can’t top that,” he said — which stunned me: as though they were entertainers whose performance he knew he couldn’t out-do. Good grief. I don’t remember what else he said, other than he obviously couldn’t care less about what they’d suffered.
On the pro-ordinance side, three prominent Alaskans especially stood out. And on them, I’m just going to borrow from Heather’s live-blog account (& yes, I spelled all these names out correctly for her!):
Vic Fischer, one of the original framers of Alaska’s Constitution, just gave a very enlightened speech on how the constitution of the United States and the constitution for Alaska were written at times when the framers could not possibly know how society would change. He made the point that the amendments made to both constitutions were steps forward as society moved forward, and that this ordinance was one further step forward for Anchorage.
His wife, Jane Angvik, one of the framers for Anchorage’s charter, spoke about how the adding of sexual orientation to the city’s codes was proposed in 1975 was already overdue. She feels that it is now very much overdue.
Both Mr. Fischer and Ms. Angvik drew several questions from Assembly members, due to their knowledge of the intent of the framers of the Alaska Constitution (in Mr. Fischer’s case) & the unification charter that in 1975 united the previously separate governments of the Greater Anchorage Area Borough & the City of Anchorage into the unified Municipality of Anchorage that we have to this day.
A few minutes later, Heather wrote:
Arliss Sturgulewski has spoken out in favor of the ordinance. She was also on the original Anchorage charter commission, and was disturbed to see the hate that was in evidence when sexual orientation was first proposed to be added to the city’s anti-discrimination laws in the 1970’s.
Unbeknownst to Arliss Sturgulewski, she also has the distinction of being, so far as I can remember, the only Republican I have ever voted for, when she ran for Governor in 1990. (Ultimately losing to Walter Hickel, who had lost the Republican primary to her & abandoned the Republican Party for the time being to run on the Alaska Independence Party ticket.)
It was really a privilege to hear from these three elders of Alaska political life. And, furthermore, to have their support in the fight for equal rights.
“Prevo’s army is out in force”
It was perhaps halfway through the testimony that I first learned, I believe from Assembly Vice Chair Harriet Drummond, that some of the people testifying against the ordinance were not Anchorage residents, but had in fact been bused or carpooled in from the Mat-Su Valley. I’m not going to discuss that in-depth here — I did that in my post yesterday called “Outside influence” — suffice it to say here that Debbie Ossiander, Assembly Chair, that the Mat-Su people who wanted to would still be permitted to testify, on the grounds that many Mat-Su residents come into Anchorage to work or shop. I was okay with this decision at the time, having no idea of the numbers that might be involved & the strategy that those numbers implies: part of an attempt, it seems, on the part of anti-ordinance forces to stall the vote indefinitely. A fillibuster. And given the numbers of Mat-Su residents shipped in, perhaps an indication of a changing demographic in Anchorage, perhaps not quite so amenable to Jerry Prevo’s arguments as it used to be — enough that perhaps he has no choice but to draw from outside the municipality in order to artificially shore up his support.
It was even later in the evening that I saw further news of what was going on outside: a post on Mudflats (which I must have seen on Heather’s laptop) called News from Assembly Meeting saying “Not good news. Prevo’s army is out in force. Bussed in from the Valley. Sea of red shirts coming to rail against civil rights of Alaskans. Please come if you can to show your support. Wear anything but red…” It had been posted at 5:46 PM, but I didn’t know that at the time: I quickly tweeted a reassurance, at 10:33 PM, about the different situation inside the Assembly chambers: “I’ve been keeping tally: so far ~34 testified in favor ~30 against ordinance.”
The Assembly adjourned at about 11:00 PM. After adjournment, I compared my tally with my friend Steve’s — we were pretty close. As I wrote yesterday morning:
Testimony thus far has been a bit more blue than red, with (according to my tally, which I might have screwed up a couple times) about 40 people testifying in support of the ordinance and 31 in opposition. By the time things shut down for the night, I was perhaps ten people away from testifying myself, & according to Assembly chair Debbie Ossiander there’s a total of 320 or so people total who signed up to testify.
Debbie Ossiander told us before adjournment that everyone who had signed up to testify would be permitted to. Additionally, anyone who had been called already but who had to leave before they were called would also be permitted to testify. (One of those people is Immanuel Prebyterian pastor John Carey.) Based on my tally, about 71 people total testified on Tuesday, which means that about 17 people didn’t come to the mic when their names were called, per Chair Ossiander’s information that Chuck O’Connell, the last person to testify, had been witness number 88.
And that’s where we stand. Public testimony will resume next Tuesday, June 16.
I was impressed about a number of things. I was impressed, first, at the amount of work that our elected representatives in the Assembly do. This post cannot begin to bring justice to what they do. I was impressed, to, by Debbie Ossiander’s even-handed but firm control of the meeting. She did a fantastic job of enforcing a civil atmosphere in a very contentious atmosphere, & I will say that in spite of my eventual disagreement, once I’d learned more, about permitting all the bused-in Mat-Su witnesses to testify. I was impressed also at her fair treatment of all witnesses, in which regardless of their fame or position in society they were treated as equal citizens of — well, I was going to say equal citizens of Anchorage, but since some of them were from outside Anchorage, I’ll just say equal.
I was also impressed by the civil demeanor of all the people assembled. Regardless of which side they fell on, supporter or opponent, red shirt or blue shirt, everyone did just fine sitting crowded together in a room for eight or nine hours. No, they didn’t applaud for the other side’s witnesses, and a few times Debbie Ossiander had to caution people to not interrupt each other’s witnesses with reactive noises, but we all existed in the same room together, some of us elbow-to-elbow with our opposition. That in itself I regard as a powerful argument for how even the most religiously conservative can coexist peacefully and civilly with people whose morality they abhor, just as LGBT people and our allies can in fact coexist peacefully and civilly with people whose religious beliefs we find intolerable. So what’s the issue about us coexisting on the job or as neighbors?
And on a personal level, I was impressed by what a good time I had. A good time?!!! Comparatively speaking, yes. During the 1992-1993 ordinance fight, I just wanted to curl up into a ball & hide, the hatred in the air felt so palpable to me. But all of Tuesday night I was in a good humor, & (as Heather James said) “keeping the mood light” for myself & the people on either side of me. I’m sure part of my good mood was simply that I’m in a better place emotionally at the moment, in spite of recent losses, than I had been in 1992. But probably the bigger part is my sense that Anchorage has changed in the past 17 years: we had allies before, but we have even more now, & they are standing forth and beside us in ways that are wonderful to me. Even if we don’t win this particular battle, I know that equal rights will come, and soon. The times they are a’changin’, inevitably, in favor of equality.
But I know the night did not feel the same to other LGBT people there. Many of them felt the hatred just as palpably on Tuesday night, as I had in 1992. Several of them who stood forth to testify did so at great risk to themselves, & with much pain. And in fact as I began to write this, I learned of a report that one of the people who testified on Tuesday night was fired from her job the very next day — because of her testimony. [Correction 6/13/09: Since writing that, it’s been confirmed that she was in fact asked to leave her job due to performance and attendance issues, unrelated to the hearing or to her personal life.] [Another addendum, 6/15/09: I’m not too clear what the truth of this is now, given later info. I think the only way anyone could know for sure why she was fired was if the Equal Rights Commission investigated. But the ERC isn’t at this point legally empowered or mandated to investigate claims of sexual orientation discrimination. That’s why we’re having this battle, after all.]
Even if we don’t win this particular battle, equal rights will come. But as Jane Angvik said, we’ve been waiting since 1975, when the first Municipal Assembly unanimously passed an equal rights ordinance. There is no reason, none at all, that we should have to wait any longer.
Okay, it’s late now. I’ll take care of my typos tomorrow. Good night.
Quickie post-toothbrush addendum!
John Aronno has posted his first set of testimony transcripts:
Also, if you want to see all the photos I’ve uploaded from Tuesday night, see them in my Flickr photostream: