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Sexual orientation debate reignites in Juneau

By Rhonda McBride 5:40 AM February 25, 2014

In one day, an ongoing struggle for acceptance was heard in two legislative arenas.

JUNEAU – On the day a Senate committee was to take up a bill banning discrimination against Alaskans due to sexual orientation, the Senate minority leader called for a constitutional amendment to legalize same-sex marriage.

Sen. Hollis French, (D) Anchorage, said it was his conscience that drove him to push for the measure, even though he concedes it will be hard for the amendment to win the two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House necessary for passage.

Still, French is hopeful.

“I think you’ll be surprised by some of the folks who may support it, maybe more quietly than others,” French said. “But I think most folks can see that this is the right thing to do.”

French said recent legal decisions around the country have convinced him that it’s time to bring the same-sex marriage debate back to Alaska.

“I think the march of history is absolutely clear,” said French, who believes Alaskans will look back on this era in the way people look back on the time when interracial marriages were prohibited by law.

The Senate majority leader argues that the state’s history on this issue is also very clear.

“It’s a debate raging in America, and Alaska spoke on it,” said Sen. John Coghill, (R) Fairbanks.

Coghill is referring to the constitutional amendment voters passed in 1998.

The measure said that in order to be valid or recognized by the state, “a marriage may only exist between one man and one woman.”

“I’ll give Senator French the benefit of the doubt. It’s a noble thing in his mind,” Coghill said. “But like I say, I fundamentally disagree.”

“It’s a different point of view, and we work in different points of view down here,” said Coghill, who stopped short of saying whether he would give French’s measure a hearing in his Judicial Committee, one of the key stops along the way for the amendment. Coghill did say it’s a legislative discussion that should be carried on with respect.

Another measure, Senate Bill 131, may have more chance for passage. If passed, it would outlaw discrimination against Alaskans based on “sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”

The bill would give the State Human Rights Commission the responsibility to protect victims of such discrimination, just as it now does in cases of racial or religious discrimination.

“It’s a civil rights bill,” said Sen. Berta Gardner, one of SB 131’s main sponsors. “And people all over this state are watching with great interest and concern.”

During almost two hours of testimony Monday, there appeared to be widespread support for the bill.

Many of those who testified told lawmakers on the Health and Social Services Committee they had personally experienced discrimination.

Drew Phoenix, who was born a female — but has since taken on the identity of a man — testified that he has faced discrimination in housing.

“I was denied housing, simply for being who I am,” Phoenix said.

For others like Glenn Cravez, an Anchorage lawyer, it’s also a personal struggle. Cravez told lawmakers he has two sons.

“One is straight. One is gay,” Cravez said. “I want both my sons to be treated the same in the eyes of the law.”

Theda Pittman, an Anchorage gay rights activist, spoke proudly of her military service and being a lesbian. But she recalled a time when she tried to hide her sexual identity.

“I had to lie about who I loved,” Pittman said. “No one would think my partner and I shared a room.”

Kimberly Hubbard, a state worker in Juneau, trembled as she spoke.

“I can’t begin to express in words the anxiety, stress and fear that comes along when you constantly hide who you are,” Hubbard said.

Jeff Rogers of Juneau told lawmakers that it’s likely people they love and care about could be affected by discrimination.

“I made the call home in October to my parents to say I’m in love with a man, and he’s moving in.  And that love I felt for my parents was extraordinary,” Rogers said. “But I will say to members of this committee and members of the Legislature, you too may get this call someday from your son or daughter – or niece or brother or sister.”

In one day, an ongoing struggle for acceptance was heard in two legislative arenas: a proposed constitutional amendment and a bill that seeks to end discrimination. And the debate, as always, strikes an emotional pitch with no quiet resolution in sight.

After introduction on the Senate floor, SJR 30 — Hollis French’s constitutional amendment — has been referred to the judicial and finance committees.

After Monday’s testimony, SB 131 remained in the Health and Social Services Committee. It also has a referral to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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