Canvassers Pushing Alaska Anti-Trans Measure Didn’t Say It Was About Trans People

NOTE: Since this story was published, early results in the election show Prop. 1 being defeated by seven points.

•••

“Do you want men in your little girl’s bathrooms in elementary schools?”

That’s the question a woman asked Erin LaDuke in July as she walked by at the Bear Paw Festival in Eagle River, Alaska, a yearly summer event with clowns, pageant queens, and a lively parade. The woman, who looked between 25 and 30 years old, was a jarring contrast from her lively environs: She was screaming and she was angry.

“People were walking 10 feet around her because she was just sitting on her stool screaming about how there were going to be men in the bathroom of our children’s elementary schools,” LaDuke recalls.

The woman was collecting signatures for Proposition 1, Anchorage’s anti-trans ballot measure that seeks to mandate that people must use the bathroom corresponding with the gender listed on their original birth certificate. Mail-in ballots are due on Tuesday, and if the initiative passes, even a trans woman with identification that reflected her gender identity would be forced into a men’s bathroom.

LaDuke claims, though, that the woman didn’t mention that. In fact, she didn’t say anything about transgender people at all.

“She was mostly just screaming about men being in the women’s bathroom,” she tells INTO over the phone. LaDuke says she assumed the ballot measure was an “anti-trans women issue” because it was the canvasser’s belief “that trans women are men, which of course we all know that they’re not.”

But for many people, it wasn’t clear what the canvassers petitioning on behalf of Prop. 1 were talking about.

For months, petitioners canvassed malls, churches, bookstores, and the local REI retailer, collecting the roughly 8,500 signatures that would put Prop. 1 on the ballot.

But critics say that canvassers would often neglect to tell people what the issue actually was: a debate about whether trans people have the right to use bathrooms which reflect their lived gender identity.

Nine sources tell INTO that canvassers presented the initiative as one of a series of issues: 1) a privacy measure, 2) a law which would prevent men from entering women’s bathrooms, or 3) a policy to protect little girls at school.

But crucial details were left out which would allow people to make an informed decision on the subjector know what they were signing at all.

“Backers of Proposition 1 have always used fear and intimidation to scare voters into repealing basic protections for transgender people in Anchorage,” says Kati Ward, campaign manager for Fair Anchorage, which is battling Prop. 1. “That’s true nowand it was no doubt true when they collected signatures last summer.”

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Approximately 150 voters signed both the petition to put Prop. 1 on the ballot and the competing “decline to sign” initiative. The latter petition, which was circulated by the pro-LGBTQ Fair Anchorage campaign, essentially worked as a promise not to support the measure.

It is possible, although in most cases not likely, that a small number of the overlapping names can be attributed to two people in Anchorage having the same name. The city has about 170,000 registered voters.

The overlapping signatures raised concern within the campaign about how informed voters were when they signed the petitions. Around 2,300 signatures were thrown out by the clerk’s office when they appeared to be duplicates, but the remaining total was still enough to get the issue on the ballot.

Many tell INTO that phenomenon is common in signature gathering and isn’t necessarily reflective of the measure’s validity. But when the publication traveled to Anchorage in March to speak with local residents about Prop. 1, INTO went with one big question: Voters were sold a vacuum cleaner. Were they told they were being sold a vacuum cleaner?

Anchorage residents allege voters were not.

Lee Harrington, who also encountered a canvasser at Bear Paw Festival, tells INTO “the word ‘transgender’ was never mentioned” when representatives from the “Yes on 1” campaign approached him. The petitioners claimed the ballot proposal would protect women “against dangerous predators who could come into the bathroom” but did not specify the nameless boogeymen that they were warning against were trans people.

“Most people were just taking the clipboard, signing, and saying ‘thank you so much for this’ as they wandered by,” says Harrington, who was there to support Fair Anchorage.

Carolyn Dolan, who also observed petitioners interacting with Bear Paw attendees, also went to the event to protest the Prop. 1 campaign on behalf of Fair Anchorage. Because she says supporters of LGBTQ rights weren’t allowed within 10 feet of the opposition, Dolan stood with a sign urging Anchorage voters to reject transphobia. “Please Decline to Sign,” the poster read in giant letters.

The occasion was a momentous one for Dolan: She had never “stood up for anything” before, let alone picketed on the front lines of Alaska politics.

Her first experience as an activist was surreal, Dolan claims. She says canvassers petitioning for Prop. 1 would use extreme scare tactics to get locals to support the ballot initiative, asking attendees questions like: “Do you want your daughter to have to disrobe… get naked in front of a man?” and “Do you want your daughter to be raped in a bathroom?”

“I was really kind of flabbergasted,” she tells INTO. “I didn’t realize what people would say on the other side.”

When Dolan attempted to get closer to the petitions to see what information was being presented to voters, she claims she was blocked from doing so by a group of motorcyclists wearing “Bikers for God” leather jackets. They allegedly shoved her backward and said she wasn’t welcome in their space. Dolan says one member of the group said she “could expect issues if [she] wanted to continue.”

“It was kind of scary,” she claims.

Reports from the Bear Paw festival were extremely consistent in how they characterized the language being used by Prop. 1 supporters. Andrea Redeker, who was assigned by Fair Anchorage to follow one of the canvassers for several hours, says the petitioner told voters, “This is to keep teenage boys out of girls’ bathrooms in school.”

Although conservatives who oppose affirming trans bathroom access frequently use rhetoric invalidating the existence of trans people, Redeker says there was no indication that’s what they meant. A person who wasn’t already clued into the issues may have falsely believed the petitioner was decrying high school peeping tomsboys spying on their female classmates through a peephole.

“I would say to her, ‘Don’t lie to these people,’” Redeker tells INTO over the phone. “‘Tell them what it’s really about.’ She would not do that. She would use the same rhetoric.”

Many supporters of Prop. 1 did, in fact, disclose to voters that the issue they were canvassing for would impact transgender people. But sources claim some of those petitioners misrepresented which side the petition was on. Some were told the initiative would benefit trans people.

A group of voters approached Joan Blagg at Bear Paw and told her they had “signed to keep [her] rights intact.” Blagg claims she is “very obviously transgender” and was easy to pick out amongst the crowd.

But as she spoke with individuals who had signed on to support the ballot initiative, she says it was clear they didn’t know what they had done. They were told the measure “clarified” which bathroom transgender people should use, as if that were something positive for the LGBTQ community. They didn’t realize it would clarify that trans individuals would be forced into restrooms contrary to their gender identity.

Blagg says they were “manipulated.”

“When it was explained to them, a number of them agreed that they would rescind their signatures, but that is a long process,” she tells INTO. “I don’t know how many followed through on thatI suspect none.”

An additional source who asked not to be named on the recordin fear of being outed as trans at workconfirmed these accounts.

INTO called a cross-section of the voters who signed both measures to fact-check these claims. Only a handful were willing to talk. Largely those reached did not remember specifically signing the competing petitions or signing to put Prop 1 on the ballot. Many, however, did not express regret about doing so.

Amber Epps says she can’t clearly recall signing competing petitions.

“I was probably signing both of them thinking it was the same thing,” she tells INTO over the phone. “I wasn’t aware that they were opposite.” When asked if she remembers signing the Prop. 1 petition, Epps says, “It was probably a long time ago. I don’t recall it exactly.”

Asked if she recalls signing anything related to men in women’s rooms, Epps concedes she agrees with the conservative view on trans rights. She claims everyone should use the bathroom which corresponds with “what you were born with.”

“I just think it causes a lot of confusion,” Epps says.

Voter Tammy Duff also claims she had “no idea” she signed to put Prop. 1 on the ballot. But when pressed on whether someone had asked her about protecting women’s privacy in public facilities, she did recall signing such a petition outside the 5th Avenue Mall.

While Duff says she knows what Prop. 1 is and “has no problem with that,” Duff sounded a refrain INTO often heard when speaking with voters in Anchorage: Many of the individuals who signed onto both initiatives say all issues deserve to be debated and voted on by the general public, regardless of whether or not they have merit.

“I think sometimes you just sign those things just to get them on the ballot,” she says.

Another voter, Sheryl Chriest, says signing the petitions gave her an opportunity to learn more about the issueeven if she wasn’t properly informed at the time. She tells INTO that “everybody has the right to vote on every idea.”

“Whether I agree with that idea is not the issue,” Chriest says.

When reached by phone, another man contacted by INTO says his grandmother did sign both petitions but suffers from dementia, which may have explained the mix-up.

Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action and the central figure pushing Prop. 1, says that canvassers absolutely represented the ballot measure honestly. To him, the issue is entirely about privacy and keeping men out of women’s restrooms.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Minnery says in a phone conversation with INTO. “There’s a lot of nuances but that’s the easiest way for people to get their head on straight on this issue. [] There’s no interest in our side whatsoever in ever manipulating people. We have no interest in telling half-truths ever.”

He emphasizes the final word a second time: “Ever.”

Minnery also doesn’t believe it’s a misrepresentation to say Prop. 1 is good for transgender people. That’s because he believes Prop 1. benefits the LGBTQ community by cracking down on what he feels is a disorder.

“And the reason why I say that is because I am of the mindset that [being transgender] is disordered thinking,” he says.

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Christina Eubanks had the opportunity to confront one of the petitioners who worked with the campaign. A young man wearing black sweatpants and a t-shirt was canvassing in her apartment complex in Government Hill, a military barracks converted into affordable housing. The August day was warm by Alaska standardsmeaning it was over 50 degrees.

The petitioner introduced himself as Nate. When Eubanks questioned Nate about the initiative, he claimed it was intended to “protect people in the bathroom.”

“From what?” she asked.

“Well, you just don’t want people coming in, you know, who don’t belong there,” the petitioner said.

“Absolutely, there’s already laws that cover that,” she told him.

“Well, I’d just like to point out this is about safety,” Nate responded. “That’s what they told us.”

At no point during their conversation did Nate say the issue was about trans people, she says. But because her husband is transgender, Eubanks is familiar enough with the conservative rhetoric used to push forward anti-trans bathroom bills in North Carolina (which passed) and Texas (which didn’t) to know what Nate was really getting at.

Eubanks wasn’t convinced, though, that Nate truly understood the issue.

She explained the impact Prop. 1 would have on their family if signed into law: A 2013 survey from UCLA’s The Williams Institute found that 70 percent of transgender people claim to have been harassed, attacked, or sexually assaulted when using a public facility. This ordinance could endanger the lives of her husband and children.

After debating the issue with Nate for over a half hourlong enough to make her late for picking up her children from day camphis defenses began to break down.

“I’m gay and I’ve been ostracized from my family,” he confessed.

The petitioner said he accepted a position with the campaign to put Prop. 1 on the ballot because he felt like he was out of options. His family had disowned him. He was kicked out of school. He has a lengthy rap sheet of minor to mid-level offenses, making it difficult for him to find steady employment that also pays a living wage.

Eubanks told him a nearby Subway location was hiring. It was a start.

“You can go get a job at another place,” she said. “But what you’re choosing to do is hurting other people, and you’re hurting people that I love. That’s not OK with me.”

Nate claimed he would quit the campaign and find other work.

Eubanks thought that would be the last her family heard from Nate. But weeks after quitting the campaign, he showed up at Identity Alaskaa local LGBTQ center where Eubanks’ husband, Samuel Ohana, serves as a board member. During a monthly support group for members of Anchorage’s trans community, Nate attempted to apologize for his involvement in Prop. 1.

He was not received well, says Ohana (who also works as part of the Fair Anchorage campaign). The city of Anchorage had officially announced that Prop. 1 would be scheduled for a public vote in April, and tensions were extremely high.

“Nate was there to try to make reparations,” he claims, adding: “But it was very, very rough.”

In an interview with INTO, Nate confirms Eubanks’ account of the August incident. He claims he “regrets” working for the Prop. 1 campaign. Petitioners had to collect around $80 worth of signatures before they could receive a check for their work, and after he got paid, Nate alleges he moved onto other employment.

“Did you mention to voters the ordinance was about transgender people?” INTO asks in a half-hour phone conversation.

Although Nate frequently talks around questions asked of him, as if he were engaged in a conversation with himself, he is extremely clear on this point. “Correct, I did not,” he says with an almost staccato precision.

Nate claims the “primary words” he used to sway voters were “business” and “privacy.” When approaching a potential supporter of the Prop. 1 campaign, he says he would tell them: ‘This is an initiative to protect businesses’ privacy in the event that a lawsuit is brought against a business.”

The former canvasser claims he didn’t receive much direction from Alaska Family Council, which is spearheading the Prop. 1 effort, on how to talk to voters about the issue.

No one told him it was his duty to make it clear the issue was about trans people.

“I do think it is the responsibility of the initiative to educate the voter on the entire issue, providing proper information to the voterpro and con,” Nate says. “Giving the voter the choice to look at the entire debate on the issue would be great.”

Arenza Thigpen, who left the Prop. 1 campaign to work for the other side, says he didn’t coordinate with Alaska Family Council on how to present the measure to Anchorage voters. He told people it was “about the church’s view on male and female bathrooms.” Thigpen says he was never instructed to lie to residentsand doesn’t believe he didbut there wasn’t a rulebook for how to present the issue honestly.

Thigpen, a seasoned canvasser who has worked on campaigns in many states, says that canvassers often present what the issue means to them. That may not reflect the reality of the proposal, especially if they are given little direction.

“They’re not going to talk about the effects of what the petition does,” he explains to INTO over the phone.

Thigpen says that it’s common for the people who put forward ballot measures not to tell their petitioners “what the issues are about.” He is currently in the process of stepping down from an initiative in California over concerns that canvassers aren’t being fully informed about the bill’s intent.

When asked if he felt it was “possible” that voters were misled in Alaska, Thigpen nods.

“I don’t know the other canvassers who were working on that project,” he claims. “But theoretically, it’s very possible for that to have happened.”

But when it comes to Prop. 1, Thigpen claims he didn’t leave the campaign because he felt he was being lied to. He says he was confronted with the impact the measure would have on Alaska’s LGBTQ community when a transgender woman approached him outside an Anchorage grocery store.

In a recording obtained by INTO, the woman (who asked not to have her name included in this story) details Prop. 1’s actual impact.

“What this is doing is it makes the city say, ‘Hey, if you’re a trans man, you have to go in the women’s room,” she says. “That’s what they’re saying. If you have a beard but you were born a woman, you have to go in the women’s room. So we’re going to have all these guys go in the ladies room.”

“They’re not guys,” Thigpen responds.

“They have beards,” she shoots back. “You understand that? There’s going to be guys with beards going into the women’s rooms. This is going to make them do that. You understand that?”

“I understand what you’re saying,” he claims.

“That’s what you’re trying to do,” she asserts. “It says that you have to have the sex that’s on your birth certificate originally. So someone could have a penis and a beard and be forced to go into the women’s room.”

“Oh,” he says, adding after a pause. “When you put it that way.”

As someone who was born in Alabama during the 1970s, Thigpen claims their conversation struck a chord with him. Growing up in the shadow of Brown v. Board of Education, he says he’s very familiar with discrimination and inequality.

He says Prop. 1 would send Alaska “back to the dark ages of the south.”

“Every time I’m doing a petition anywhere around the country I always think about that one person who gave me a rundown of what their life was like,” Thigpen claims. “I don’t want anybody to go through that.”

•••

It’s doubtful that if the numerous allegations against the Prop. 1 campaign are true, what groups like “Yes on 1” and the Alaska Family Council have done is explicitly illegal. In a state known for its libertarian, anti-government ethos, Anchorage doesn’t appear to have very stringent laws on ballot referendums or what proponents of a measure are required to tell voters when gathering signatures.

After telephoning a number of different agencies looking for clarity on what those guidelines entail, it was difficult to ascertain a clear answer.

But criticism around the legitimacy of signature gathering has led to legal action in the past. In Montana, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) successfully sued to make clear that the anti-trans bathroom initiative pending there would impact transgender people. The advocacy group argued that cloaking the measure in vague terms to protect privacy evaded its true intent.

“Any description of the true intent of this discriminatory initiativeto prevent transgender individuals from using public facilities that correspond with their gender identityis entirely absent from the ballot statement,” said Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU of Montana, in a statement.

In September, the Supreme Court of Montana ruled in favor of that challenge.

Kasey Suffredini, co-chair of Freedom for All Massachusetts, the campaign against the Massachusetts measure, says anti-trans activists are purposeful in preying on the American public’s lack of familiarity with transgender people.

“[Opponents] are in a race against time to capitalize on the fact that Americans don’t yet know who transgender people are in order to enshrine discrimination against us before people realize that we are their friends and their family members and neighbors,” Suffredini says.

According to 2016 findings from the Pew Research Center, 87 percent of Americans know a gay person, and only 30 percent know someone who is trans.

Even though 7 in 10 people don’t have someone in their lives who is transgender, polls show that measures targeting the transgender community remain widely unpopular. In a 2017 poll conducted by Reuters/IPSOS, just 39 percent of U.S. respondents supported laws limiting trans bathroom access. Nevertheless, Massachusetts is set to debate its own anti-trans restroom proposal this year.

When INTO asked Nate why he feels groups pushing anti-trans legislation might misrepresent their position, he says they might not pass otherwise.

“It’s fielded in a way to gain voter support through ignorance,” he claims. Nate adds that while the public has the right to be properly educated on the issues, he doesn’t believe that would be “an objective for someone who would want to make a law like this.”

Redeker agrees.

“If they told people why they were actually doing this, people would understand that it’s flat-out discrimination,” she says. “These people want transgender people erased from their communities.”

Note: “Nate” is referred to by his first name throughout the piece due to privacy concerns.

Photos via Kate Sosin Oeser


Kate Sosin and Nico Lang

Kate Sosin is a contributing writer. Nico Lang is staff writer at INTO.

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