Alaska’s first two openly transgender elected officials took office this week after quietly making history in October.
Liz Lyke and Kathy Ottersten won election, respectively, to the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly and the Fairbanks City Council. Lyke will serve on the FSNB for three years, while Ottersen will hold the position for a year.
Despite Alaska’s reputation as a conservative state, the races barely made headlines.
Lyke, 43, was profiled for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner earlier this year, but the story focused just as much on her wrestling career as it did her identity as a trans woman. She wrestles for the Fairbanks Ladies of Wrestling (FLOW) as “Lizzesota Undying,” a tongue-in-cheek tribute to her home state of Minnesota.
Meanwhile, the limited coverage of Ottersten’s win didn’t mention the fact that the 52-year-old also is also intersex.
After Ottersten (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) began transitioning in their 20s, their doctors discovered scar tissue on their genitalia resulting from a surgery performed without the consent of Ottersten’s parents.
“They told my parents I’d had excess skin that was removed during circumcision,” they told INTO over the phone.
What was difficult for Ottersten’s parents wasn’t that the person they had raised as their son was intersex but that the decision had been completely taken out of their hands. Ottersten described their mother as a “strong, powerful woman” who hiked up Machu Picchu in her 70s; she’s not used to not being in charge.
“It still gets to her,” Ottersten said. “It really does.”
Winning election makes Ottersten the first openly intersex politician in Alaska, as well as just one of a handful in the entire world. Last year Betsy Driver made history as the first known intersex official in the United States after she was elected to the Flemington, N.J. city council.
Intersex people, whose sex characteristics are neither exclusively male nor female, represent up to 1.7 percent of the U.S. population.
Ottersten said they weren’t hiding. The Facebook photo on Ottersten’s campaign page showed them wearing coveralls shoveling five feet of snow. As someone who is gender nonconforming in their appearance, Ottersten didn’t feel the need to adhere to “gender stereotypes” to get elected.
But Ottersten noted that gender fluidity is surprisingly common in the Alaska interior. Residents often joke that Carhartt’s is “formal wear.”
“There are a lot of women up here that just don’t bother in a lot of ways with trying to appear female,” they claimed. “You’re too busy hauling your own water because you live in a dry cabin or out dealing with the mushing dogs.”
Lyke added that it would be difficult for her to hide—even if she wanted to.
A longtime political organizer who serves as co-chair for the LGBTQ caucus in the Alaska Democratic Party, Lyke is extremely well-known in a community where people already know each other. The moment she leaves the house she knows she’s going to run into friends, neighbors, and now her constituents.
“I have the toughest time just being just an anonymous person,” Lyke said. “When I go to the grocery store, I have to ask, ‘How long is this going to take?’”
It doesn’t help that the statuesque politician literally stands out in a crowd. Her May 2019 entry in the FLOW calendar joked that her height is anywhere between 6’4” and 7’ tall. “The correct answer is: None of your business, she’s too much for you to handle,” it concluded.
If her gender identity wasn’t an issue in the race, it’s because Lyke didn’t make it one.
The race for the FSNB Assembly, which governs the county surrounding Fairbanks, largely came down to two key issues: fiscal policies and the environment.
Fairbanks commonly tops lists of most-polluted U.S. cities, much of which comes from wood-burning stoves. In November 2012, the L.A. Times reported that air in the city of 31,600 was significantly worse than the air in Beijing. It’s level of air pollution is twice the limit recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Lyke campaigned to ensure that Fairbanks meets federal standards under the EPA, in the face of a ballot initiative loosening air quality restrictions even further. That measure eventually passed with 53 percent of the vote.
Despite that setback, Lyke believes people voted for her because they saw how engaged and knowledgeable she was on the subject.
“It’s similar to Danica Roem,” she said, referring to the trans politico’s 2017 campaign message about fixing a local highway. “People in Virginia people elected her because she knew about the issues inside and out, and she just spoke to that.”
While friends worried that Ottersten and Lyke might be subject to transphobic attacks from conservatives during their campaigns, both claimed those fears did not materialize. They described their opponents not as the enemy but “good caring people” and “really neat individuals with interesting lives.”
When Ottersten went on a radio program broadcast through a local Fox affiliate and discussed trans issues, no one called to complain.
“I’m just immensely proud of this community because overall the people stuck to the issues, but even at the outset, I didn’t feel it was going to be a problem,” Ottersten claimed. “It’s just not how we do things up here.”
Even though Alaska has a Republican governor and two Republican Senators, each of the politicians described the state as being a fairly accepting place.
Although Fairbanks doesn’t have a full-time gay bar or a yearly Pride parade, the LGBTQ community commands the largest contingent at Golden Days, an annual march celebrating the city’s founding in 1903. Drag queens pass out candy to kids alongside an enormous 30-foot rainbow flag.
“One of the reasons I love being in Fairbanks is that we’re a part of the community,” said Ottersten, who moved to the city three years ago. “LGBTQ people don’t have bars up here not because we couldn’t but because we don’t feel the need.”
“Every bar is our bar,” they added.
Although Alaska lacks statewide protections on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, an inclusive public accommodations bill inches closer to passage in the state legislature each year. Meanwhile, the local school district in Fairbanks does have an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination policy on the books.
In October, the FNSB School Board passed a resolution recognizing LGBTQ History Month following a 4-1 vote.
The movement was largely led by young trans activists, who showed up in overwhelming numbers in support of the effort. During an hour of public testimony, supporters discussed the importance of LGBTQ visibility in schools.
That news wasn’t picked up in the lower 49 states, Ottersten said, because it didn’t “even really spark interest with the local news.”
“I like to joke that it wasn’t a queer person who got in their airboat one winter and drove it up onto the street to a strip bar,” they claimed. “We’re not the weirdest people in town. We’re just not that big a deal in the ultimate scheme of things.”
While there has been some pushback against the resolution, interviewees said support for the local trans community was evident during neighboring Anchorage’s Proposition 1 campaign. If passed, the proposal would have prevented transgender people from using restrooms that correspond with their gender identity in government buildings and schools.
Prop. 1 was defeated by a five-point margin in March, making it the first time voters rejected an anti-trans ballot measure at the polls.
Lyke credited its defeat with the neighborly spirit cultivated in a state where it can reach up to 40 degrees below in the winter. The arctic chill in Fairbanks is particularly punishing. Often regarded as the coldest city in America, the average low in January is a bone-chilling -13 degrees Fahrenheit.
“People have this sense of like wanting to help each other out,” she claimed. “If you see a neighbor that is in distress or in the lunch or you’re like, ‘I’m helping that person no matter what because that might be me someday.’”
But if the election barely caused a stir locally, Ottersten hopes it resonates with the wider LGBTQ community during a time when their rights are increasingly under attack at the national level. Just days before the candidates took office, the New York Times reported the White House is considering a memo erasing trans people in federal policy.
Within hours of that report, the Department of Justice (DOJ) also issued its opinion to the U.S. Supreme Court that employers can discriminate on the basis of gender identity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Ottersten said Fairbanks is sending a different message.
“In a year when we’re being used as a dog whistle, we’re saying: Not only are trans people and intersex people are part of our communities, but we can take it a step beyond that,” they claimed. “I think that’s a very hopeful place to be.”