Working Behind the Scenes Towards Justice in Alaska

Tom Rachal exudes a quiet confidence. He often shies away from the spotlight, preferring that his work happens more organically “behind the scenes.”

He is the one who’s always listening intently to people, taking stock of who’s in the room and why, and finding ways to bring people together. The impact Tom has had on the local LGBTQ equality movement here in Alaska is undeniable, and we know it is people like him that are the driving force behind our work.

As the Secretary of the PFLAG Anchorage board, a volunteer for the Alaska Workers’ Association, and a former board member of Identity, Tom has been an integral part of our community for years.

He hasn’t always been such a public advocate, though. When he first moved to Anchorage in February of 1970, “it was a whole different city,” he says. He arrived six years before the newly-minted Anchorage Assembly voted to include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination ordinance for the first time.

However, after an anti-LGBTQ minister raised complaints about the measure, Mayor George Sullivan (father of current Mayor Dan Sullivan) vetoed it. In the following years, there would be three additional attempts to establish legal protections for the LGBTQ community—none of which succeeded.

As a municipal accountant, Tom always carried the fear and weight with him that he could be fired from his job at any moment because he was gay. As a result, he was never open about his identity at work. Tom and his partner carried that heaviness with them constantly, especially after Tom was nominated as municipal employee of the year. “We were very closeted. We didn’t go anywhere, we didn’t go out, we didn’t attend any events,” he says.

That changed after Tom retired in 1998. He was finally able to be open about his 21-year partnership with Al Kaneta. This brought a level of joy and affection to their relationship that they hadn’t yet experienced, finally allowing both of them to be their full selves.

Unfortunately, Tom’s partner passed away in 2002 from lung cancer, despite having quit 13 years prior. Not wanting others to suffer, Tom founded the Tobacco Free Rainbow Alliance with the help of the American Lung Association and the State of Alaska. “I owed it to Al,” said Tom. The Alliance helped the Alaska Pride Festival go smoke free in 2013.

Moved by the strength, courage, and dedication of Pride Foundation’s scholars, Tom has become a consistent and steady supporter of our work. “I need to do what I can to help other people take over when my generation is gone,” he reflected.

Like many Pride Foundation donors, scholars, and grantees, Tom also believes in the importance of focusing our working on the intersection of overlapping issues: ending poverty, ending homelessness, and assuring racial equity.

Recently, Tom made a generous gift that Pride Foundation leveraged with 10 other organizations to launch BalanceAK—a statewide social justice coalition working to create a more inclusive, fair, and welcoming Alaska for all.

“I believe in it,” he said about his involvement with Pride Foundation and what spurred him to support BalanceAK. “I know I’m just one tiny cog in this huge wheel, but I find myself wanting to get involved to the point that my calendar is full.”

From being quiet and living a double life when he first moved to Alaska, to the breadth of his current involvement, Tom is thrilled that “now with my time, and to some extent, with my money, I can give back to organizations I believe in to help people who come after me.”

Tom’s heart is as big as his laugh, and he epitomizes the power and impact we can have by working quietly alongside others for fairness and justice.

Josh Hemsath is Pride Foundation’s regional development organizer in Alaska. Email Josh.

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