After the last Pride burger and hot dog were grilled in Anchorage, Juneau prepared its annual community barbecue, the nation waited for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8 cases, and Alaska’s senior U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski announced her support for marriage equality.
“I support the right of all Americans to marry the person they love and choose, because I believe doing so promotes both values: it keeps politicians out of the most private and personal aspects of peoples’ lives—while also encouraging more families to form and more adults to make a lifetime commitment to one another,” wrote Sen. Murkowski.
Soon after Sen. Murkowski’s public statement, people in communities all across the state expressed their delight in her support. In Anchorage, Verner Wilson III organized a series of community events designed to express thanks to the senator called “Hearts and Flowers for Lisa.” More than 15 people created crafty expressions of gratitude at venues including the Gay & Lesbian Community Center and Mad Myrna’s, an Anchorage LGBTQ nightclub.
“Even if we disagree on other issues, I think it’s important to thank our elected leaders for taking a strong stance for equality and to respect who we love and want to marry personally,” said Wilson.
Residents of Wilson’s hometown Dillingham—located in the heart of Alaska’s Bristol Bay—were also excited by Sen. Murkowski’s statement. “Many of my friends and neighbors even expressed their support of my event through Facebook and personal notes,” said Wilson.
In Alaska’s interior, PFLAG Fairbanks’ member Pete Pinney is encouraged by Sen. Murkowski’s statement. “As we all come to know and understand family, friends, and neighbors as part of the fabric of our community, the easier it is to see the common sense in the senator’s statement of support,” said Pinney.
Even as encouraging as Sen. Murkowski’s words are, Pinney said “many [in Fairbanks] are glad to see this, but their lives are still affected by other inequalities in the law or protections not currently in place.” Studies have shown that up to 43 percent of gay and lesbian workers have experienced some form of mistreatment or harassment on the job because of their sexual orientation, and an astounding 90 percent of transgender people report similar experiences.
Sen. Murkowski’s statement came a few days before people in Juneau and the southeast came together for their annual PFLAG and Southeast Alaska Gay & Lesbian Alliance (SEAGLA) community picnic.
Sara Boesser, an LGBTQ community organizer, said that one reaction she heard at the picnic was “pleasantly surprised.”
“It gives me a ray of hope,” said Boesser. “But who knows? Maybe she can help sway other Republicans more to our side of the cultural divide. I’m not holding my breath, but I do have some hope.”
With hope, however, comes some amount of expectation that Sen. Murkowski will take the next step forward in supporting LGBTQ Alaskans.
The hard reality is that 29 states, including Alaska, still fail to protect LGBTQ people in the workplace. “Non-discrimination protections at the federal level would definitely help. I hope she supports such legislation to pass them in the future,” said Wilson.
“The reason why people’s minds on these issues are changing is that they are realizing they know people or they know how people are affected when they are discriminated against,” said Pinney. “It is the job of elected officials not only to represent, but to educate. I hope the senator is able to do that for others in her statewide sphere of influence.”
“On the national front, I do hope it means she would vote for ENDA (the Employment Nondiscrimination Act). So, we in Alaska could have employment protections,” said Boesser. “What is significant is that she felt safe supporting us. More significant still would be for her to work diligently on our behalf from here on out in every arena.”
Josh Hemsath is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Alaska. Email Josh.