President Joe Biden has made clear that ending discrimination against LGBTQ people will be a priority under his administration. With a Democrat-controlled Senate, we have an opportunity to make significant headway on this issue within Biden’s first 100 days.
As a Ketchikan City Council member, I was proud to be part of our unanimous vote to join over 140 municipal leaders from all across the country in a letter to Congress, urging our representatives to pass comprehensive LGBTQ protections. Alaska is one of the 29 states that lack these protections under state law. It’s time that Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan represent all Alaskans, join their colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and declare their support for the federal Equality Act — common sense, bipartisan legislation to protect all LGBTQ Americans from discrimination.
Here in Ketchikan, we’ve been trying to pass local LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections for years. I’m happy to say that we finally succeeded in July and became one of only four cities and counties in Alaska with protections. This is about fairness. LGBTQ people are our friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, essential workers, fellow worshippers, and community members. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. Under our nondiscrimination ordinance, LGBTQ Ketchikans can live, work, and access public spaces free from discrimination.
Over 350 cities across the country have laws like ours. Twenty one states have nondiscrimination protections at the state level. The other 29 don’t. That leaves millions of LGBTQ people in countless cities, towns, and communities across the country vulnerable to discrimination. This patchwork of protections across the country is unworkable, unsustainable and unfair. I believe that we should be able to come to an agreement on this. Equality is not a Democratic or Republican value, it’s an American value. Everyone should be free to go about their daily lives — go into a store, check into a hotel, eat a meal at a restaurant — without fear of harassment or discrimination.
I know that some of us are on a journey when it comes to LGBTQ issues. There was a time when I myself didn’t fully comprehend how pervasive and harmful discrimination is. I am a white, straight, cisgender woman who has had many privileges in life. I’ve always been a supporter of the LGBTQ community, but I really became motivated to be a vocal ally after I became disabled in an accident 25 years ago. Before my accident, I had never experienced discrimination in my life. And while I know that being white and disabled is not the same as being a person of color or being LGBTQ, my personal experiences of discrimination led me to a greater understanding of how important it is to fight against systemic racism, as well as discrimination against LGBTQ people.
Unfortunately, not everyone in our city or our state is fully supportive of the new nondiscrimination ordinance. Some are simply unaware of all the ways that LGBTQ people can experience discrimination in their lives. While we worked to pass our ordinance, many LGBTQ activists shared their stories of discrimination. Their perspectives and involvement were invaluable. Here and across the country, discrimination in housing, employment, healthcare, and many other areas of life is still commonplace. These protections are critically important in Alaska, as many of our people – and disproportionately LGBTQ people — struggle with homelessness. I also worry about the suicide rates among our LGBTQ youth. We have lost young people to suicide in Ketchikan, and it’s absolutely urgent that our youth feel protected by their home city.
I know firsthand that discrimination is real and insidious in our state. Several years ago when I was living in the Kenai Peninsula, a lesbian couple bought a house in our neighborhood. I was approached by a group of my neighbors to sign a petition to kick these lovely women out of our community. Naturally, I refused to sign the petition, but was taken aback by my neighbors’ blatant discrimination against the couple. Their discriminatory campaign failed, and the couple lived there long after I moved to Ketchikan. Nevertheless, this experience showed me how important being protected in housing is. It would have been a lot easier to expel these women if they weren’t homeowners, but were instead renting, subletting, or at a shelter. We must ensure that LGBTQ people are free from discrimination in every aspect of their lives, no matter what state they call home.
The election of a president who supports LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections sends a clear message: Americans are ready to see their LGBTQ neighbors protected from discrimination and treated with dignity and respect. I urge Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan to do right by their constituents, and pledge their support for the federal Equality Act.
Janalee Gage is a small business owner and has served as council member for the City of Ketchikan since 2015.