By Scott Christiansen and Matt CaprioliOriginally printed in the Anchorage Press
Since the 1970s the struggle for LGBT equality in Alaska has taken on a one-step-forward/two-steps-back quality. Whenever gains are made, either politically or in the courts, a backlash follows. We’ve tracked some of those gains on a timeline along with some of the backlash. We’ve attempted to include those milestones when the courts, legislators or voters weighed-in and actual law was passed or repealed, and in some cases struck down or blocked or vetoed. Some lesser milestones we chose because they seem to illustrate cultural or political shift, if not an actual change in law.
The exercise seems timely because of the new court case, Hamby v. Parnell, in which five same-sex couples are suing in federal court to have Alaska’s gay marriage ban overturned. It’s not the first time this issue has been in court in Alaska. In fact, the definition of marriage in our state constitution was itself a backlash that followed gay rights gains made in court. But the current lawsuit is part of a trend that has included recent victories for gay marriage in courts across the nation. That’s not the only trend. American attitudes are changing, too. This month a Gallup poll showed that 55 percent of Americans think marriages between same-sex couples should be on equal footing with traditional marriage. It was 27 percent in 1996. Alaska isn’t likely far behind in the progress toward social acceptance.
But Alaska has lagged when it comes to legal acceptance. It was the first state to ban same-sex marriage through an amendment in its constitution in 1998, beating Nebraska by two years and Arizona by a decade. The current lawsuit tests Alaska’s marriage amendment against the U.S. Constitution and could render the Alaska law moot. Our freelancer, Matt Caprioli, caught up with the five plaintiff couples to ask them why a legal marriage in Alaska was so important they were willing to sue for it.That the five couples are brave is self-evident. That’s a required trait when someone is called upon to fight a powerful political arm of society. But in contrast to the political arena, we didn’t hear chest thumping or saber rattling from the plaintiffs. Each of them talked about personal slights and times when those two-steps-back in Alaska law hurt.
They also talked about loving each other and about commitment and caring within their relationships. And that last part is what they all had in common. What they want recognized is simple. It’s a commitment spawned of love. For those of us who now find ourselves among the majority in America, it’s baffling that anyone would want to deny their commitments exist or diminish them in any way.
The Struggle for Marriage - Article about Hamby et al. v. Parnell et al.
Gay rights milestones
The Imperial Court of All Alaska was founded. The group now claims to be the first LGBT association to incorporate as a nonprofit in Alaska. Imperial Courts operate in a fashion similar to fraternal organizations or sororities. The ICOAA grants scholarships, raises money for charity, recognizes community members with annual awards and hosts the Gay Alaska pageant each year in June.
August 10, 1974
Peter Dispirito, a gay man, owner of a hair salon and founding member of the IOCAA, was stabbed and killed in his home. Dispirito’s killer, Gary Lee Starbard (then 22 years old), was indicted on second-degree murder and pled down to manslaughter. He served less than a year in prison. A defense attorney referred to the killer as a “victim” and called Dispirito a “wolf” during a sentencing hearing. The judge admonished the defense lawyer, reminding him the victim was a dead man.
December 1975 to January ‘76
In the first year after the old City of Anchorage and Greater Anchorage Area Borough merged, the Anchorage Assembly passed an ordinance that included “sexual orientation” in the local code banning discrimination due to race, gender, religion and disabilities. Then-Mayor George Sullivan vetoed the legislation and Assembly attempts to override the veto failed. The Anchorage Equal Rights Commission was established without the sexual orientation language.
1976 - 1977
Mayor Sullivan deleted the Alaska Gay Coalition listing from the 1976-77 edition of The Anchorage Blue Book. The coalition sued the Municipality and lost, but the Alaska Supreme Court overruled the lower court. The government argued that the Blue Book was not a public forum and claimed it needed to exclude organizations due to lack of space, but the court found that argument lacking because the Alaska Gay Coalition had been singled-out for exclusion.
The Alaska Gay Community Center, the precursor to Identity, Inc., was founded in Anchorage. Organizers met weekly, established a helpline and eventually a newsletter, Gay Alaska, first published in 1980.
Anchorage’s first Pride Parade was more of a demonstration than a parade, with many protesters wearing bags over their heads to protect themselves from employment discrimination.
1983 - 1985
An Anchorage lesbian mother lost custody of her child and filed an appeal. The Alaska Supreme Court overturned the decision. “Simply put, it is impermissible to rely on any real or imagined social stigma attaching to mother’s status as a lesbian,” the court ruled.
1986 - 1989
Identity, Inc. published two reports documenting gay and lesbian life in Alaska. They found that 31 percent of business owners and managers surveyed said they would not hire or promote someone they knew was gay. Twenty percent of landlords said they would not rent to lesbians or gay men.
The Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, whose members were appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Assembly, took notice of Identity, Inc.’s reporting. The Commission held hearings and struggled with potential changes to city code. It voted against recommending changes. (Appointments to AERC become further politicized, with gay rights in the center of a tug-of-war.)
December 1992 - January 1993
Progressives on the Assembly, led by Democrats, moved to add “sexual orientation” to the local law enforced by the AERC. They failed, but the Assembly passed a version that banned job discrimination among city employees. Mayor Tom Fink vetoed the law. The Assembly overrode the veto. The new law only protected city employees from job discrimination and did nothing to prevent housing discrimination
.February - April 1993
Christian activists petitioned to repeal the watered-down gay rights law. The law was suspended after 20,000 signatures were delivered to the city clerk’s office. (Fewer than 6,000 were required.) A group sued to keep the issue off the ballot and the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. The title of the referendum—“Referendum Petition to Repeal a ‘Special Homosexual Ordinance’”—the court ruled, was “potentially prejudicial” and misleading. Opponents of gay rights took over the Assembly in the April election and the new Assembly voted 7 - 4 to repeal the law.
1993 - 1994
Politician Kevin “Pat” Parnell, a one-term member of the Alaska House of Representatives and former Assemblyman, told constituents in a newsletter he was switching his registration from Democrat to Republican. Parnell’s social conservatism was well known— he told the Anchorage Daily News gay rights must be kept out of local law. Parnell said he did not want the city to “stray” from its 1975 charter. Pat Parnell lost his bid to become mayor. He is the father of current Governor Sean Parnell.
1994 - 1995
Two University of Alaska employees, Kate Wattum and Mark Tumeo, took the University to court after being denied health benefits for their same-sex partners. Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Meg Greene ruled in favor of the couples, concluding that the University’s policy meant married employees automatically receive better compensation for the same work. The University appealed to the Supreme Court. That effort failed and the University announced in July of 1995 it would adopt a new policy.
1994 - 1995
Two republican state representatives, Norm Rokeberg of Anchorage and Pete Kelly of Fairbanks, sponsored legislation that made it legal to discriminate against same-sex partners when it came to employee benefits. It failed, but the following year Rokeberg and Kelly backed a “definition of marriage” bill that Rokeberg claimed was “forced” by Judge Greene’s decision in the University case. Anti-gay laws were passed, but the University continued to allow its employees to earn family benefits.
Jay Brause and Gene Dugan, the couple who founded Out North Theater, filed a lawsuit against the Alaska Bureau of Vital statistics seeking to obtain a marriage license in Alaska. The couple argued that they had been denied equal protection under the law, a violation of both the state and U.S. Constitution. They also argued their right to privacy, protected by the state constitution, was being violated. Baptist minister Howard Bess and his wife Darlene would later join the lawsuit because it was illegal for Bess to “solemnize” a gay or lesbian marriage.
The Legislature passed the law sponsored by Rokeberg and Kelly explicitly defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Governor Tony Knowles allowed the bill to become law without his signature. Knowles called the law “unnecessary” and “divisive” but refused to veto it.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Peter Michalski ruled that the lawsuit Brause v. Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics should go to trial. The Alaska Legislature responded almost immediately by passing a resolution to place an amendment to the state constitution before voters. The amendment read: “To be valid or recognized in this state, a marriage may exist only between one man and one woman.” The amendment was scheduled to be added to Article 1 of the Alaska Constitution, the article titled “Declaration of Rights.”
Link to info on the Mormon Church's funding of the amendment
Alaska voters passed the marriage amendment and Alaska became the first state in the union to include such language in its constitution. Sixty-eight percent of voters (nearly 153,00 people) voted in favor, while about 32 percent (about 71,600) voted against it. The Brause-Dugan case is declared moot.
Government entities around the state refused to follow the lead of the University of Alaska and continued to deny benefits to same-sex partners of their employees. The ACLU of Alaska and nine same-sex couples sue the state and the Municipality of Anchorage. The state and city successfully defended their policies in Anchorage Superior Court, but the ACLU appealed. The case would not be resolved until 2005.
Governor Tony Knowles, in his final year in office, issued Administrative Order #195. The order says Alaska’s “state workplace” should be free of “discrimination and harassment” and asserted Alaskans should have equal opportunity when seeking state services. The order talked about race and sex discrimination, but also included “sexual orientation” in its text. Despite Knowles’ order, the state continued to fight the ACLU in the lawsuit over family benefits.
The Alaska Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled it unconstitutional to deny benefits to same-sex partners of public employees. The decision hinged on the equal protection language in the Alaska Constitution. Immediately afterward, ACLU attorneys told reporters this “equal protection rationale” is likely to be followed in other states where constitutional bans on gay marriage existed.
After briefings from both sides in the ACLU’s employment benefits case, the Alaska Supreme Court set a deadline of January 1, 2007, for the state to begin offering family benefits to employees and retirees with same-sex partners. Conservative lawmakers had been fuming all year about a “constitutional crisis” and Governor Frank Murkowski called a special session of the Legislature. Murkowski’s administration had written the benefits plan and asked the Legislature for permission to adopt it. The lawmakers flew to Juneau and in two days did the opposite, passing a law prohibiting the administration from adopting any plan that expanded benefits to gay and lesbian state employees. Palin left intact a special election set by the Legislature during the November session.
December 29, 2006
Governor Sarah Palin signed her first veto, striking down the Legislature’s attempt to stop employee benefits from expanding and saying it would be unconstitutional. Palin’s administration adopted a benefits plan prepared by Murkowski with guidance from the court.
April 3, 2007
The special election on employee benefits had a low turnout and, at $1.2 million for an advisory vote, a high cost. About 23 percent of registered voters turned out and 53 percent voted yes to further amend the constitution in order to deny employee benefits to gay state workers. Later in the year, efforts to advance a constitutional amendment failed to make it through the Legislature.
The Anchorage Assembly passed a gay-rights ordinance that would allow LGBT citizens to take claims of discrimination to the city’s equal rights commission. Mayor Dan Sullivan (son of the 1970s mayor) vetoed the ordinance.
Petitioners got a local gay rights initiative onto Anchorage’s April election ballot. Voters rejected the measure 57 percent to 43 percent. They also re-elected Mayor Dan Sullivan to a second term.
One of the commercials that ran on air during this time period
A bill that would allow LGBT citizens anywhere in the state to have discrimination cases heard by the Alaska Commission on Human Rights was introduced in the Legislature by then-Representative Beth Kertula, a Democrat from Juneau. The bill got committee referrals, but never got a floor vote in either the House or Senate and received only one committee hearing. The hearing was held in the House committee on State Affairs, where Republican committee chairman Bob Lynn, of Anchorage, accepted only written testimony from the public. Lynn never asked the committee to vote on the bill.
Kertula resigned from the Legislature to take a job at Stanford University and Democrats resurrected her human rights legislation. This time, the bill got a hearing in the Senate Health and Services Committee, chaired by Sen. Bert Stedman, a Republican from Sitka. About two-dozen people testified in favor of the legislation but Stedman did not allow the committee to pass the bill along.
The Alaska Supreme Court ruled that a property tax exemption for senior citizens and veterans is being unconstitutionally denied to same-sex couples. Once again, the Alaska court used the equal protection rationale to arrive at its decision.
Five same-sex couples sue in U.S. District Court to overturn the 1998 marriage amendment to the Alaska Constitution. The lawsuit claims the Alaska definition of marriage violates their due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Timeline compiled by Scott Christiansen from: Municipality of Anchorage documents; records of the Alaska Court System and Alaska Legislature; archives of Identity, Inc.; Human Rights Campaign website; and, the archives of the Anchorage Daily News, The Anchorage Times and the Anchorage Press. Special thanks to Mel Green, Drew Phoenix and Jacob Dugan-Brause.