Equal Rights in Anchorage. A Small Step on a Long Road.
Last night was the Anchorage Assembly meeting in which the public was invited to give testimony about ordinance #64, which ensures non-discrimination in housing, education and employment for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered persons.
Pastor Jerry Prevo of the Anchorage mega-church the Anchorage Baptist Temple was the one organizing those in opposition to the passage of the ordinance. We all knew it was going to be a dramatic evening.
As I was heading out the door, I remembered that I’d gotten something from Equality Works in an email saying to wear blue. So, I quickly ran upstairs and changed into a blue shirt.
I arrived at the Loussac Library a little late. As I drove down 36th Ave., I was reminded of a sunny day last fall when 1500 people had gathered here with Obama signs, speaking out and telling the world as best they could about why they were not supporting Sarah Palin for VP, even though they lived in Alaska.
As I approached, I saw a group of teens all wearing red. Some were holding signs that had a stick figure of a man and then a plus sign, and then a stick figure of a woman. There was a little blonde girl, about 7, who had a sign that said “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.” I wondered what conversation her parents had with her about what she’d be doing this evening, and about what her sign meant. I wondered what part of “love” meant denying employment, education and housing.
On the opposite corner was another group of red teens, standing right next to a group of blue teens with letters spelling out E Q U A L I T Y. Dueling ideologies between teenagers who, under different circumstances, could have been friends. It all seemed very strange already.
Then I saw the sea of red by the Assembly Chamber doors.
I realized at that point that the red color was supposed to be some kind of organized statement. It made me very glad I had changed out of the red shirt I wore to work today. I walked down the road flanked on both sides by people with printed out signs, and red baseball caps, and red shirts who were chanting “Equal rights, not special rights.” I wondered what was so special about being renting an apartment, or not getting fired from your job because of who you love.
There was a blue crowd I hadn’t seen at first, which made me feel a little better. As the evening progressed, more and more “blue” people showed up, and they didn’t look quite so outnumbered. I was to hear later that many of the red shirts were bussed in from the ironically named ‘Church of Hope’ in the Valley.
I worked my way into the lobby, and the energy inside was just as strange as the energy outside. I did see former governor Tony Knowles, gubernatorial candidate Bob Poe, and soon-to-be gubernatorial candidate Ethan Berkowitz all there to show support for the ordinance. I don’t know where our current governor is, but I suspect if she had been present at this event, she’d have been wearing red. I felt optimistic that in this one room I could see three talented, capable people I would MUCH rather have in that office in Juneau, who had actually showed up for civil rights.
Miss Alaska and Mrs. Alaska were both there in tiny dresses and tiaras to support those who were opposing the ordinance. I don’t get that excited about beauty pageants, but aren’t these women supposed to be representing the whole state? Why, I thought, were they here in full regalia on such a divisive issue?
The usual progressive voices were also there, showing support and gathering the experiences they will use to share their unique perceptions of the event on their own blogs.
There was no way anyone else was getting into the Assembly Chambers. They were packed, and nobody was leaving. I decided to go back out and get some air.
I was stunned at the number of children that were there waving red signs.
I stood for a while looking at them, and I wondered how many of them were gay. One in ten. I picked out one little boy, and imagined it was him. He will grow up among people who think like this. As he becomes aware, he will think that he is wrong, and bad, and unlovable. He will remember this day when he and his family stood holding signs. He may try to hide who he is. His parents, standing next to him right now, may not accept him. He may be afraid to tell them, and live his life as a lie. Or he may deny who he is and try to fit in, and trying hard to prove that he isn’t what he is. He may even bring his wife and kids to rallies like this.
A stroll through the parking lot revealed an interesting range of bumper stickers all across the range you might expect at this event.
When I returned, the line to the overflow room was short, so I waited and got in. I heard plenty of testimony on both sides. I heard a minister that almost moved me to tears, talking about how we don’t have to agree with people to agree that everyone deserved basic human rights. I heard a minister who told us how Jesus didn’t condone gay behavior.
I heard mothers talk about the discrimination their children had had to endure for being gay. I heard a transgendered woman bravely speak up about her life facing challenges most of us can’t even imagine. One in 12 transgendered people will be killed.
I heard an African-American man who said to the gay community “don’t mix up your civil liberties with my civil rights.” He said that the LGBT community had no idea what real discrimination was like. I didn’t know it was a contest. Later I found out that a father of a gay son told that man that he had marched on Washington twice to fight for that man’s rights, and now he had to watch this man speak out against the rights of his son.
I heard several people ask, “Where are the reports of all this supposed discrimination?” There were several times when these people gave testimony either right before or right after someone who had a very moving story about the discrimination they had suffered. It was strange how those prepared remarks, written at the kitchen table, probably sounded good to them at the time, but now rang hollow when spoken in the presence of real people with real stories. And there is no reason to report discrimination, and no reports filled out if that act of discrimination is legal. I guess they didn’t think of that either.
I learned later that while people were inside the building testifying that there was no problem and no discrimination, outside a man in a red shirt physically attacked a man in a blue shirt. He was arrested and taken away.
I heard a Christian woman speak her truth and talk like Jesus. She was full of love and tolerance, and a deep sense of social justice. I wanted to hug her. I heard many people who said they were Christians who sounded like anything but. I found myself with a lump in my throat on several occasions; sometimes in sadness, sometimes in joy, sometimes for no reason I could put my finger on. Each speaker had three minutes, and you never knew what the next three would bring. It’s the closest thing to a non-stop emotional roller coaster I’ve ever seen.
After a while, it was just overwhelming. Back out for some air.
I stood with my back against the wall, just breathing and trying to let all that I’d heard settle in. Someone yelled “Pervert!” from the red side of the street to the blue side. It all seemed like some strange sporting event. Red vs. Blue.
A guy with a sign started walking back and forth on the street, leading a group of children and young adults in a chant. “Go straight! Straight is great! Go straight! Straight is great!” I stood there, and they passed by and several people made eye contact with me while they were yelling, as I stood there in my blue shirt. My inner voice yelled back, “I AM straight. You do not have to be gay to recognize injustice.” But I knew they were not in the mood to listen.
I wondered if any of the testimony I’d heard inside helped people to understand anything. Maybe there were a few people in the audience that all of a sudden realized that LGBT people are…. people.
I saw a sign that said:
We must live together like brothers, or perish together as fools.
– Martin Luther King Jr.
That was a good note on which to leave. The Assembly will meet again next Tuesday to hear more testimony. More hours made up of three minutes.
A group met afterward at Villa Nova. It felt like we needed each other to talk with, to decompress. It felt like we needed nourishment of several kinds. We shared our observations of those who, for whatever reason, came to the discussion from a place of division, and judgment, and superiority. And we celebrated those from our community who rose up in eloquence and a sense of social justice.
A curtain was pulled back on the inner thoughts of this community. The good and bad were laid bare in the Klieg lights. I don’t know where this will all lead, but it’s obvious that the discussions need to happen and that we are taking a small step forward on a very long road.
[Thanks to all the Mudflatters who spontaneously live-blogged this event on last night's thread. It's amazing that people all over the world came together to share this event with Anchorage. I did not even realize there was a live stream, but was so pleased to see everyone tuned in! This issue is so much larger than Anchorage. Deep thanks again.]