In Anchorage Anti-Trans Vote, an LGBTQ Movement Rises

· Updated on October 17, 2018

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

– Ephesians 6:12, email signature of Prop. 1 Champion Jim Minnery

You enter from a back door, across a snow-packed parking lot to get into Mad Myrna’s, one of Anchorage’s two gay bars. And there, tapping away at a laptop at the empty bar, winter coat on and beer in hand, is Christopher Cooke, field organizer for the Human Rights Campaign.

He’s working 80-hour weeks these days, living at the hotel next door, and getting up at 5:00am to make work calls with colleagues on the East Coast. His personal inbox shows 2,880 unread messages, but he responds to all business-related emails within 24 hours.

Field organizers die young, Cooke explains, and it’s no wonder. He’ll be here almost every night this week. Tomorrow he’ll be canvassing, collecting signatures of potential volunteers, and peeling “No Prop. 1” stickers off the pages for potential supporters.

Anchorage’s LGBTQ community has thrown everything it has into defeating Proposition 1. So have advocates nationally.

Prop. 1, if passed by mail-in vote, would mandate that people must use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender listed on their original birth certificate. That means that even if a trans person has updated their documents, they would be forced to use the bathroom corresponding to their sex assigned at birth. For many, this would leave the option of breaking the law or risking physical violence. For non-binary people, it would heighten scrutiny in public spaces.

Opponents of Prop. 1 have said it essentially erases trans people from public life.

Anchorage is too small to breed the intra-community divisions of a large metropolis, and the bill has been greeted as an affront to the entire LGBTQ community. Cooke is living and breathing the measure, and he’s not alone.

Across the bar a drag king named Pillow shows off pictures of a homemade knit hat. It reads “No on 1” in Pink letters.

Tomorrow night Jeff Chen, a Taiwanese American, will stand at this same spot and explain why his climate change group Alaska Rising Tide dropped a massive anti-Prop. 1 banner downtown in the middle of the Iditarod Dog sled race.

“Because it’s a small community, we got to stand up for each other,” says Chen, who identifies as straight. “Maybe it’s not an issue that directly affects me, but I know what discrimination looks like. My people have faced discrimination.”

Arctic Heat, the biennial leather competition, has chosen to donate half its proceeds to Fair Anchorage, the campaign to defeat the measure. Canvassers are stationed at Myrna’s almost nightly, and many patrons sport “No Prop. 1” stickers. When the Anchorage Press launched an LGBTQ section earlier this month, it chose to devote nearly all of its pages to Prop. 1. Facebook profile pictures of LGBTQ activists all sport “No on Prop. 1” filters.

Orchestrating this united opposition is Fair Anchorage Campaign Manager Kati Ward, fresh from her role as the Anchorage Regional Field Organizer at Planned Parenthood. Several Alaska locals claim the Ohio native is homegrown, but she’s been in the state just six years.

Ward is also clocking 80-hour weeks, sprinting between canvassing events and community discussions. She will be without a job when the campaign ends next month, and more than one person has told her, no pressure, that the vote is a bellwether for anti-trans bills across the country.

On the other side of the ring is Jim Minnery, the president of Alaska Family Action and a seasoned anti-LGBTQ activist.

In a phone call with INTO, he refuses to refer to transgender women as such; instead he says “biological males,” which he repeatedly insists is the scientific term. When Anchorage first considered LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections in 2012, he pedaled a series of deeply harmful cartoons denigrating queer folks.

“Carol runs a daycare center in Anchorage, but if Proposition 5 passes, it will be illegal for Carol to refuse a job to a transvestite who wants to work with toddlers,” one ad warns. (Transvestite, of course, is largely considered to be an offensive and outdated term).

Minnery is eager to engage with LGBTQ activists about their differing opinions. He criticizes the queer community as so dangerously close-minded that conservatives like him are afraid to voice their opinions.

When INTO revealed earlier this month that “Yes on 1” had released a commercial featuring the story of a woman who didn’t live in Alaska, Minnery shot back that the woman who starred in the series of TV ads Kate Ives, who resides in Minnesota represented Alaskans who were afraid to tell their stories.

“Kate has been harassed and threatened for simply being uncomfortable with a man in the women’s shower,” he says in an email. “We live in upside down times when people are fearful for speaking up on such a common sense issue.”

In November, while Ward was still with Planned Parenthood, Minnery texted her asking her to meet for coffee and discuss their differing opinions on Prop. 1.

In January, days after Ward’s role with Fair Anchorage was announced, he texted her again. He sent photos of pages from Andrew T. Walker’s book God and the Transgender Debate, a book that states that acting on being gay and trans is a sin. Minnery also emailed Ward at her personal account the same day.

“I notice you follow our email alerts at times. I’d be open to buying you a coffee to discuss our differences in a civilized manner if you’re up for it,” he wrote, adding: “I promise not to bite.”

Ward replied that she appreciated the offer and felt discussion could build community.

“But we’re beyond that open dialogue since the proposition will already be on the ballot and I’m not sure you see how destructive this effort is on the lives of the transgender community,” she wrote. “Furthermore, I do not believe the rights or humanity of transgender people are up for discussion or debate.”

One Alaska local who is eager to debate Minnery is trans activist MoHagani Magnetek, who tells INTO she is just one of two out black trans women in all of Anchorage. In early March, Magnetek went before the Anchorage Assembly to protest the proposed ordinanceholding up an oversized birth certificate.

The Assembly may not have a say over whether or not Prop. 1 becomes law, she notes, but the meeting aired on live TV. Most people have never met a trans person. Here was their chance.

“I want to show and talk about how asinine it is to walk around with your birth certificate,” she told assembly members, holding up the giant certificate.

Magnetek launched into a stunning five-minute spoken word performance, denouncing Prop 1. In it, she imagined what it would look like to ban trans people from public bathrooms.

It’s not hard for her to imagine.

Five years ago, a security person at the popular alehouse Humpy’s ejected Magnetek from its women’s bathroom during a concert. Magnetek had transitioned prior to the incident, but she hadn’t updated her identification. When a woman challenged her right to be in the restroom and a security guard checked her ID, she was told she had to leave.

“That was one of the most embarrassing nights of my life,” Magnetek remembers.

The incident snowballed into a major controversy. But unlike most discrimination cases in major cities, the sides were not neatly drawn.

Jessica Mailloux, a manager at Humpy’s, regularly frequents Myrna’s. One of her closest friends is a bartender there and she’s a frequent visitor to the watering hole, sometimes erroneously referred to by patrons as America’s northernmost gay bar. (It’s actually second. Anchorage’s other gay bar, The Raven, wins the title by a block’s distance.)

Mailloux says the company which oversees Humpy’s, as well as a handful of other local eateries, knew pretty immediately to change course.

She calls the altercation “unfortunate” but says it led to a shift in policy at the pub. Managers invited representatives from Identity Alaska, the city’s only resource LGBTQ center, to do a training with staff. Although the center acts as an umbrella organization housing a number of local queer and trans groups, it can only afford one full-time staff member.

“It was something that had not been dealt with before,” says Mailloux. “What came out of that is we adopted a non-discrimination clause into our paperwork.”

In addition to instituting a trans-affirming bathroom policy, the company has become a hub of Anchorage’s weeklong Pride festival in the years since, hosting numerous events. And its owners have strong feelings on Prop. 1.

“As a business, we are very anti-Prop. 1,” says Mailloux. “We’re not OK with it. It’s shocking.”

Mailloux is eager to dispel any suggestion that the business is transphobic. For an outsider, it may seem surprising that after five years, the same people involved in the incident are still around to tell the story or even be mad about it.

But that’s Anchorage.

In most places, the rule is six degrees of separation. In Anchorage, locals say it’s two.

Humpy’s is not the only business lining up behind Fair Anchorage to condemn Prop. 1. The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, and the tourism organization Visit Anchorage have all denounced the measure as bad for business.

It’s the rare issue that can unite people across the aisle: Both the incumbent mayor, Ethan Berkowitz, and his Republican challenger in the 2018 election, Rebecca Logan, oppose the ordinance.

These parties, it appears, have heeded the lessons of bathroom bills past. The Associated Press estimated that North Carolina’s controversial anti-trans bathroom bill would cost North Carolina $3.76 billion in losses over a dozen years. Similar legislation voted down last year in Texas would have cost the state $3 billion each year it remained on the books, claimed a local economic research group.

Alaska can’t afford that kind of hit. Visitors bring in $2.24 billion in spending annually, and about nine percent of Alaskans are employed in the tourism industry, according to the tourism group Visit Anchorage.

But that will hardly be enough to defeat the measure.

Activists say Fair Anchorage needs to raise seven times the funds as Prop. 1 proponents to match their efforts. Advertisements which spread false misconceptions about the trans community stir up fear of the unknown, a powerful political force. In the TV spot featuring Kate Ives, she discusses the horror she felt from sharing a locker room with a trans womanreferred to as a “biological male” in the segment.

“There is no screening,” she claims. “There are no safeguards whatsoever. There’s no reassurance somebody can’t come in with harmful intentions.”

Minnery has pedaled Prop. 1 as a privacy initiative. Canvassers sold it as a proposal intended to ensure safety in elementary schools. Many of the voters who signed the petition to get Prop. 1 on the ballot did so, they told INTO, because they believe every proposal should be heard by the public. It’s an appealing sell in Libertarian Alaska, especially among residents who may not know a transgender person.

“I believe everybody has the right to vote on every idea,” says Sheryl Chriest over the phone. “Whether I agree with that idea is not the issue.”

Chriest signed the petition to put Prop. 1 on the ballot, as well as Fair Anchorage’s “decline to sign” against the measure. She says both gave her an opportunity to learn more about both sides of the argument.

Education was the order of the day at at a presentation on Prop. 1 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Town residents, many of them well into their 60s and 70s, showed up to a 10:30am gathering which brought together church leaders, activists working to fight Prop. 1, and parents of transgender children.

Rev. Michael Burke, a pastor at the local congregation, tells residents who have come to hear a man of god speak on the subject that he used to think he only knew one or two trans individuals. Now Burke knows differently. Today he knows seven transgender people who regularly attend services at St. Mary’s, which includes a woman who lives at the church.

Cathy Gillis, the mother of a senior student at Polaris K-12, tells the crowd that a few years ago, she would have never have guessed her family would be activists fighting on the front lines for trans rights. But then her son, C.J., came out as transgender.

“If Prop. 1 passes, being trans in Anchorage is going to be a really scary thing,” he tells INTO in a phone interview.

The student imagines himself in a men’s room, legs dangling beneath the stall. A man notices this, and all of a sudden, he’s outed and at risk. It’s a nightmare scenario, but all too common: Seventy percent of transgender people claim to have been harassed, threatened, beaten, or sexually assaulted when using a public bathroom.

In Anchorage, everyone has a story to tell, but Fair Anchorage has aimed to introduce Anchorage voters to trans people by highlight the stories of youth who would be affected by Prop. 1’s passage.

Commercials aired by the anti-Prop. 1 campaign feature Col Lockard, a transgender student at East High.

Col came out as trans four years ago. The student has enjoyed the support of his parents and peers almost without exception, he told INTO in an earlier interview. When he came out to his homeroom class, students and teachers applauded.

If the ordinance is approved by voters, he’s worried that could change.

“I’m scared that if Prop. 1 passes, I would be bullied, harassed, and forced to use the girls’ restroom at school,” Col says in the commercial.

The terror that unspeakable harm could befall your child is what keeps every parent awake at night, but it could be his family’s reality. That’s why his father, David Lockard, has been a vocal opponent of Prop. 1, serving as a co-chair on the campaign to defeat the measure.

Lockard tells INTO that his son needs to use public restrooms like everyone else. It’s a basic human need, but more important, he argues it’s a civil right.

“This is important to take action, both for my son and for all transgender people,” he says in a phone conversation. “I really believe this goes way beyond trans people. This is the kind of civil rights issuediscrimination against different categories of peoplewe’ve experienced since the beginning of our country.”

Prop. 1 has raised a minefield of anxieties in Anchorage’s trans community, as residents contend they won’t even be allowed to use their amended birth certificates to safely access the bathroom.

“It means not only furthering of discrimination and fear, but it also means that as a disabled trans person, I am further barred from using public restrooms and public facilities,” says Augustine Randt-Reidell, who identifies as both trans and nonbinary. “As a disabled person, I already have a hard time using public facilities, and maneuvering in bathrooms can be their own issue, but then to be policed or barred if this passes, it becomes even more of an issue.”

Randt-Reidell tells INTO that even their husband’s conservative co-workers view the measure as dehumanizing.

During a debate on Alaska Public Media, the right-wing forces behind Prop. 1 downplayed the impact the measure would have on transgender people. Kim Minnerythe wife of Jim Minneryclaims individuals who have the ability to “pass” will be able to slip by unnoticed.

Here, she also cites a frequent criticism of the proposal: It has no enforcement mechanism, meaning it will be up to vigilantes and others using the restroom to police trans people.

“Nothing is going to change,” Minnery says. “Let’s be a little honest. We don’t have police in our bathrooms. We don’t have birth certificate cops. That is a ridiculous suggestion. The only thing it does is give legal protection if there would be a situation where a biological man, since I’m a woman I’m going that way, is in an intimate space, making a woman uncomfortable.”

“And obviously, a trans woman who looks completely like a woman, nobody is going to know,” she continues.

For Magnetek, who has already faced intense scrutiny and discrimination because of her gender expression, complying with Prop 1 is not an option. Navigating Anchorage as one of the few visible trans women of color is already a daily challenge.

“A lot of times, I wear my headphones when I’m out and about in public because I don’t have to hear people passing by,” she says. “Because I’ll pass people and they’ll make nasty comments and jokes and stuff. It happens a lot.”

If Prop. 1 passes, Magnetek says she’ll chain herself to a public toilet. She wants to be the first one to break the law.

“I want to sit in that mothfucker until they decide to let me go,” Magnetek says. “But until then they will have to look at me everyday and see there’s a human being sitting in that cell for standing up for her rights and the rights of others.”

In at the bottom of his email to Ward, Jim Minnery’s signature ends with “Ephesians 6:12.” The phrase is in reference to a bible passage:

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

In other words, people are not the enemy. The war is spiritual. Sin is the enemy.

Love thy neighbor, even if they’re collateral damage.

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