In an old hospital cafeteria, voices and footsteps echo off the nearly bare walls and empty offices. Toys and big stuffed animals are strewn about in various states of packing.
Matt Magnusson is showing me around a wing of St. Ann’s Center where Catholic Community Service ran its youth behavioral health program, which is shutting down because grant funding dried up.
It’s where the 20-year-old has worked for about a year and a half. He helped kids with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, reactive attachment disorder and bipolar disorder.
Catholic doctrine teaches that homosexuality is also a disorder, and acting on it is immoral. As an openly gay man who doesn’t identify with any religion, you’d think Magnusson would have to navigate a minefield of identity politics at work.
“Through talking with my friends and other gay people, they have a lot of problems sometimes with their jobs,” Magnusson said. “And I’ve never once had a complaint working here when it comes to my sexuality. Which, that’s a really wonderful thing to be able to say as a gay person. A lot of times people have nowhere close to that experience, which is horrible. To come to the place where you spend most of your time during your life and be discriminated against, that’s just an awful thing.”
However, Magnusson’s nonprofit, which the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Juneau can influence through its governing board, would be within its rights to fire him simply for being gay.
The Juneau Assembly wants the public to weigh in on a proposed ordinance that would make that illegal. The equal rights ordinance would outlaw many forms of discrimination, including that based on sexual orientation and gender identity. With a few exceptions, it would apply to public institutions as well as private sector businesses, employers, schools, and housing and lending institutions.
Deputy Mayor Jesse Kiehl introduced the measure last week.
Agencies like the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights enforce anti-discrimination laws based on race, sex, age, religion and other traditionally protected classes.
“But they have a gaping hole when it comes to discrimination based on sexual orientation or on gender identity,” Kiehl said.
The 12-page ordinance he’s proposing would protect those new classes in addition to the ones already covered.
The ordinance would not create a new city agency to handle enforcement, but Kiehl said it would give victims of discrimination the grounds to take an employer, business, landlord, lender or other institution to court where state and federal laws don’t apply.
In the early ‘90s, the Juneau Assembly considered a similar measure. A watered down version eventually passed that was limited to job discrimination within the municipal government.
Kiehl thinks today’s Juneau is ready for broader protections.
“Since then, I think that we live in a world where people now realize that they know gay people,” he said. “Where, 20 some years ago, there was too much risk of physical violence against gay people for them to let it be known who they really are. And ultimately, that’s what we’re talking about, it’s discrimination based on who you really are.”
Magnusson, who grew up in Juneau, said for the most part the community’s been a loving and accepting place to be himself. For the most part.
“I’ve been in the store where I’ve heard people make comments under their breath behind me, and that’s just a part of being gay,” he said. “Whenever I go to Seattle, I can totally let my guard down. Like, I can walk with my boyfriend down the street holding his hand. No problem. Walking down the street in Juneau we won’t do because … we stand out too much. There’s locals that look at us. Even the tourists kind of notice it a little bit because it’s a different thing for Juneau, Alaska. It’s a small town, you don’t see that.”
He said Kiehl’s ordinance is necessary and welcome.
Kiehl said he’s shared the ordinance with faith leaders and thinks he’s crafted it in a way that won’t affect First Amendment religious freedoms. Like other communities that have tried this, he does expect some reluctance.
“There’s a lot of fear — but actually, no problems. So that’s what I suspect will come as we work to pass this,” Kiehl said.
The ordinance must go through the committee process before a final vote by the Juneau Assembly.