What a change in city code could mean for Sitka’s LGBTQ community

Nearly 100 Sitkans held hands in Totem Square last year in memory of the Orlando shooting victims. (Katherine Rose/KCAW photo)

Earlier this fall the Human Rights Campaign gave Sitka and ten other American cities a score of zero on its municipal equality index, because these communities had no legal protection for residents based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In Sitka, that is about to change. The Sitka assembly on Tuesday passed a sweeping anti-discrimination ordinance. But will it really change anything in Sitka?

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Cheryl Barnes and Madison Kosma are a couple with a pretty classic “how we met” story. Both researchers working on advanced degrees, they crossed paths at school in Fairbanks last year.

“I kept having feelings for her, staying at the lab later because I knew her car was in the parking lot, leaving my office door open in the hopes she would come to talk to me,” Kosma said.

“Which I never did!” Barnes laughed.

Long before she met Barnes, Kosma first moved to Sitka from Hawaii in 2012. There, she felt comfortable being open about her sexual orientation. But a move to a new state caused some trepidation.

“When I was planning on moving to Alaska, not knowing much about Alaska, I did have some moments of wondering how I should approach the topic. It’s a red state,” Kosma says. “But then when I first landed in Sitka, I didn’t have any fear that anything was going to happen or safety reasons for not being open about who I am, who I love, and how I identify.”

Barnes moved here this year. She’s on the board for Southeast Alaska LGBTQ Alliance- or SEAGLA- and to get to know the community, she threw an event at a local business for National Coming Out Day.

“A month or so ago, and tried to get people to come out, ” Barnes said.

“Come out to celebrate,” Kosma clarified.

Sitka felt welcoming to both Kosma and Barnes when they arrived. But the city code didn’t fall in line with the values of Sitkans they knew. With nothing on the books that offered hiring or housing protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Barnes said that was a problem.

“It does come into play when you’re discriminated against. You need to have some sort of legal leg to stand on so you can fight not being hired for a job or being rented a house because of your sexual orientation or gender expression or gender identity,” Barnes said.

Earlier this fall, Sitka fell into the national spotlight, when the Human Rights Campaign issued their annual report that scores cities based on LGBTQ protections in city codes. Sitka received a score of zero. Barnes says the absence of these protections could discourage people from moving to, or even visiting, Sitka.

“That is the sort of thing that LGBTQ folks look into before they go somewhere to live or even on vacation,” Barnes said. “They want to go to a place that feels supportive or at the very least non-discriminatory.”

In fact, the Alaska State Commission of Human Rights received 58 inquiries about discrimination in Sitka in the last five years, though not all were LGBTQ related. Director Marti Buscaglia said that number is pretty typical when compared to other small cities in Alaska.

“Several physical and mental disability cases from Sitka. Several age cases. A few religion cases and from what I can see, one national origin.”

Twenty of those inquiries became formal complaints. To protect privacy, Buscaglia can’t share any specific details about the Human Rights complaints in Sitka. And she can’t say how many of those complaints were from members of the LGBTQ community because, as of now, they can’t pursue complaints based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“We did attempt to pass a resolution this year and it unfortunately did not go through. We do have a resolution in front of the legislature right now urging them to pass a law that protects the LGBTQ community in Alaska, but they’re pretty busy and it just hasn’t been prioritized,” Buscaglia said.

Kosma says it’s easy to forget that Sitka is not monolithic and that discrimination happens here.

“You can get into your groups and your bubbles,” Kosma said. “Maybe the voice for equality is really loud in your group, but that doesn’t mean it’s everywhere, and you’ve gotta figure out where those voices are.”

And Barnes says, in the end, everyone will end up ahead if the ordinance passes.

“It puts the values that people in Sitka already have on the books and protects people,” Barnes said. “That actually makes a better situation for all of us even those of us who aren’t directly impacted. How can we all feel properly protected and free in our society when others aren’t.”

The ordinance also protects for discrimination based on age and disability, race and class and religion and nationality.