Getting out of Alaska is hard.
The current cost for two people to take themselves and their car on a ferry from Whittier to Washington State is about $3,000.
So if Anchorage passes an anti-transgender ballot initiative in their municipal election on April 3, many transgender Alaskans—nearly 30 percent of whom already live in poverty, according to one survey—will have no choice but to live with it.
Proposition 1 is essentially a “bathroom bill” like the one that was passed in North Carolina in 2016, or that Texas Republicans failed to pass last year.
According to the text on the ballot, which will be mailed out to Anchorage voters in the coming days, the proposition would define “sex” based on a person’s “original birth certificate” and restrict municipal restroom usage accordingly.
It would also reverse portions of a 2015 LGBT non-discrimination ordnance, effectively allowing private business owners to kick transgender people out of bathrooms and locker rooms.
If it passes, Proposition 1 would likely affect the majority of the state’s transgender population: about 40 percent of Alaska’s population lives in the municipality of Anchorage, with another 15 percent or so living in the surrounding region.
“Like so many other places in this country, we are seeing a backlash,” Kati Ward, campaign manager for the LGBT advocacy group Fair Anchorage told me, when I asked why an initiative like this was cropping up in Alaska, of all places.
A significant challenge in combatting the initiative so far, as simple as it might seem, has been weather-related: With the municipal election approaching in early April, doing door-to-door canvassing during months when the average high in the 20s is challenging to say the least—not because pro-LGBT advocates aren’t up to the job, but because, as Ward said, “people don’t want to hold their door open when it’s that cold.”
Compared to other states where anti-transgender efforts have taken hold, as Ward points out, Alaska has a much different vibe: Less Religious Right and more politically independent. But transphobic bills and initiatives can appear in unexpected places: Even Washington State has seen sizable efforts to pass an anti-transgender measure.
The Anchorage Assembly’s 2015 passage of a law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender discrimination, incited outrage among the anti-LGBT set almost as soon as it came into existence, with opponents telling the Anchorage Daily News at the time that they were already planning to get it repealed.
In other words, what we’re seeing in Alaska is part of the same pattern that we’ve witnessed everywhere else since same-sex marriage became legal nationwide: Transgender people have become the new easy targets for those who would much rather see all LGBT rights rolled back. If you can’t beat ’em, the logic goes, then divide and conquer.
Transgender Alaskans are especially vulnerable to such cruel tactics, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Consider that 18 percent of Alaskan respondents to the U.S. Transgender Survey said that they were unemployed, which is three percent higher than the national figure for transgender respondents, and 14 percent higher than the current U.S. unemployment rate among the general population.
Or consider that 23 percent of surveyed transgender Alaskans said that they had been homeless in the past year due to being transgender, compared to 12 percent of all transgender respondents to the national survey.
Lest you think that transgender Alaskans are having a grand old time in public restrooms, over half of those who responded to the survey said that had “avoided using a public restroom in the past year because they were afraid of confrontations or other problems they might experience.”
As Ward told me, Proposition 1 will only add to that fear. Even if it doesn’t pass, she noted, its mere appearance on the ballot “could make you anxious as a transgender person.”
Other states have already proved this assertion correct: Texas hasn’t yet succeeded in passing an anti-transgender “bathroom bill,” but it has certainly tried enough times to inspire some of my own transgender friends to flee the state.
But unlike the Lower 48, where it might theoretically be possible for an impoverished transgender person to scrape together enough money to move to another state if their own becomes too hostile, transgender Alaskans are especially bound to their homes.
“Most people don’t have the ability to pack up—whether they’re taking their car with them or not—and just leave because it costs so much money to leave this state,” Ward said.
Because this is the first time residents of Anchorage will exclusively vote with mail-in ballots—as well as the first time anywhere in the country that the public will vote on the issue of transgender restroom rights—it’s impossible to predict the outcome.
“Anybody who tells you what they think is going to happen in this election is wrong because nobody knows,” Ward said.
The only certainty is that transgender people in Anchorage will have to defend their rights instead of fleeing to warmer climes. Let’s hope for their sake that the Last Frontier doesn’t became a new frontier for hate.