Alaskan City Has a Message for Mayor Who Vetoed LGBTQ Rights: We’re Voting You Out

"We don’t feel human rights should be a popularity contest."

Civil rights should never be put up to a public vote. That’s what Fairbanks City Council member Kathy Ottersten plans to tell her colleagues on Monday night during the second vote on an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in two weeks. On February 26, the city council approved the ordinance by a 4-2 vote, but Mayor Jim Matherly vetoed it just four days later.

In a statement, Matherly called for the issue to be put on the ballot in October instead. He said it should be “given to city residents that choose to exercise their voting rights.”

Ottersten says the mayor’s proposal is “insensitive.”

“It’s cruel to tell a group of people who are suffering from discrimination, ‘We’re going to vote if you’re in the club,’” she tells NewNowNext. “This isn’t the masons. There is no secret handshake to being a human being deserving of equality and treatment.”

In a 90-minute meeting, the Fairbanks City Council will decide whether to overturn the veto, move forward with a voter referendum, or table the ordinance altogether. It would take five votes to override the mayor, meaning one of the two councilmen who opposed the ordinance, Jerry Cleworth and David Pruhs, would need to flip.

It’s doubtful that will happen. Cleworth pushed for discrimination complaints to be mitigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a proposal Ottersten opposes. The closest EEOC office is in Anchorage, which is a six-hour drive.

“This provided people who don’t have the economic means to deal with a process that’s hundreds of miles away to do something locally,” she says.

Meanwhile, Pruhs doesn’t see a need for laws banning discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. During a February 22 luncheon with the local GOP, the councilman said residents who have come forward to allege mistreatment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are “full of shit.”

Pruhs also referred to the Hrrl Scouts, a local feminist organization in favor the ordinance, as a “militant lesbian group” in a leaked audio recording.

Getty Images
The skyline in Fairbanks, Alaska.

LGBTQ people in Fairbanks fear a ballot measure will invite further attacks on the community. During the city council vote on February 26, a supporter of the ordinance had their car windshield smashed in. The local children’s museum, which signed onto a letter supporting the law, was targeted with graffiti.

But many say the most chilling incident was a message spray painted onto Fairbanks City Hall: “lone wolf.”

“I think a lot of us saw that as a warning,” Liz Lyke, a council member for the outlying Fairbanks North Star Borough, tells NewNowNext. “When white men take guns and massacre people, the news reports afterward say it was a ‘lone wolf.’ We were afraid someone might open fire or something.”

In the wake of those attacks, critics of a voter referendum say LGBTQ people could be putting themselves in danger if they go knocking on doors in support of the ordinance.

“As a trans man, I’m putting myself at risk,” Hayden Nevill, founder of the local support group Gender Pioneers, tells NewNowNext. “It’s not appropriate to go door to door advocating for our rights to protect ourselves. So many people are ignorant and fearful of us, and we would be exposed to physical violence.”

Rose O’Hara Jolley, Alaska field manager with Planned Parenthood Votes in Fairbanks, adds that asking canvassers to “out themselves publicly” as LGBTQ could mean losing their jobs or their housing in a city where discrimination is still legal.

“If a restaurant were to refuse to serve me, there’s no place to report that because what they’re doing is allowed,” O’Hara Jolley tells NewNowNext.

The community in Fairbanks says it has learned from the lessons of Anchorage, which voted on the repeal of its nondiscrimination law in March 2018. Although voters upheld LGBTQ protections by a six-point margin, it followed an extremely contentious campaign that branded trans people as a danger to public safety.

A 30-second TV spot featured a testimony from a concerned mother who warned that “predatory men are using these laws to violate women.” (Its star was later revealed to be Kate Ives, an anti-LGBTQ activist based in Minnesota.)

An email circulated by the Alaska Family Council warned the ordinance was an “absolute gift to pedophiles and voyeurs.”

Instead of inviting harmful, debunked myths to be spread about transgender people in Fairbanks, supporters of LGBTQ rights have another plan: to vote Matherly out. The first-term mayor is up for reelection in October.

“The only referendum we’re going to move forward on is whether or not Jim Matherly should be in the unemployment line,” Ottersten says.

LGBTQ advocates in Fairbanks believe the local community is on their side. Although conservatives held a rally on Thursday in support of Matherly, hundreds wrote emails or letters calling for LGBTQ protections during the ordinance fight. An estimated 200 people showed up to a candlelit vigil (pictured below) the same day the mayor announced his veto.

While Alaska is viewed as a GOP stronghold, Fairbanks is not. This month the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly, the county’s legislative body, voted in favor of switching to gender-neutral pronouns in its ordinance code. It received little attention.

Last year, Lyke became Alaska’s first openly trans elected official after winning a seat in the Borough Assembly. Ottersten, meanwhile, is intersex and married to a woman.

Although Fairbanks has become a more progressive place in recent years, locals say more must be done to protect its LGBTQ population. Abby North, president of PFLAG Fairbanks, has been refused service twice in the city because of her gender identity: at a gun store and at a pharmacy while she was picking up her first hormone prescription.

“He refused to fill the prescription and turned me away,” North tells NewNowNext. “I had to come back the next day when there was a different pharmacist. There are people in Fairbanks who hate us so much they won’t even take our money.”

If Matherly won’t be a part of the solution, LGBTQ people in Fairbanks say they’re prepared to elect someone who will.

“We don’t feel human rights should be a popularity contest,” North says. “It should be the job of elected leaders to protect all their citizens. The mayor and two members of the city council have refused to do that.”

Editors’ note: One of NewNowNext’s 2018 Young Leaders, 19-year-old Lillian Lennon, spearheaded a grassroots campaign that successfully shot down an anti-trans “bathroom bill” in Anchorage. Learn more about her here.

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.