Despite marriage equality ruling, LGBTQ Alaskans can still be discriminated against

The State of Alaska has a commission whose sole purpose is to eliminate and prevent discrimination, but it can’t do anything when it comes to gender identity or sexual orientation. Alaska is one of 28 states that allows workplace discrimination against these classes.

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Rachel Pettijohn says she was discriminated against by two Juneau employers. The State of Alaska has no law protecting discrimination based on sexual identity or gender orientation. (Photo by Lakeidra Chavis/KTOO)
Rachel Pettijohn says she was discriminated against by two Juneau employers. The State of Alaska has no law protecting discrimination based on sexual identity or gender orientation. (Photo by Lakeidra Chavis/KTOO)

Rachel Pettijohn believes she was discriminated against and humiliated at two tourism companies she’s worked at since moving to Juneau two years ago.

“They didn’t fire me, they just cut down my hours to where I wasn’t getting any hours,” she said.

Since she still works in the industry, Pettijohn declined to name them.

During her first job, a supervisor implied that she was a pedophile, according to Pettijohn.

Her boss was horrified after she made an innocent comment about a coworker’s toddler.

 “I said, ‘Hey, your little girl is really cute,” Pettijohn said. “’And she went, ‘You said that? I can’t believe you said that.’ She thought I was meaning it, in that way,” she said, “and it was just because I was gay. She wouldn’t think it if I was a straight person.”

But Pettijohn didn’t make a big deal about it.

“I think I was kind of embarrassed about it, to be honest,” she said.

Even if she could prove she was discriminated against because of her identity, she wasn’t protected by the law. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage across the country, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer are not consistently protected under federal law from workplace discrimination.

Former Juneau Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Democrat, tried in 2011 and 2013 to outlaw this type of discrimination. Republican Rep. Cathy Muñoz is carrying the bill this time around.

The Alaska Human Rights Commission documents discrimination complaints each year in their annual report, but doesn’t include data on gender identity or sexual orientation discrimination.

“Very few people contact us because they’re concerned about discrimination based on lesbian, gay, transgender or queer issues because they know we don’t cover those,” according to Paula Haley, the commission’s director.

“So they don’t reach out to us, because they know we don’t have the ability to help them.”

In the past few years, Haley’s only seen a handful of cases. However, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission is beginning to accept some LGBTQ claims, according to Haley.

But this area of the law is complicated.

LGBTQ employees who work for the State of Alaska do have workplace protections, according to Department of Administration Commissioner Sheldon Fisher.

“If someone claimed they were not hired or fired due to reasons other than their ability to do the job, whatever those reasons are, that’s something we would work with,” Fisher said.

Some private sector employers may have their own policies.

Drew Phoenix is director of Identity, Inc., an Anchorage-based nonprofit that provides resources for the LGBTQ community. One of the services Identity provides is workplace cultural competency training, also referred to as sensitivity training.

“There’s no legal recourse, which is the really sad part. It’s like our hands are tied, so we can’t even report things at any point,” Phoenix said.

Requests for the training have doubled in the past year. Identity has administered more than 20 since January, according to Phoenix.

Rachel Pettijohn is now at her third company, where she says her employers are welcoming and respect her sexual orientation.