It was standing room only in the Fairbanks City Council chambers on Monday night as the Alaska city passed a contentious LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance.
The council voted 4-2 in favor of Ordinance 6093, which extends protections in employment, housing and public accommodations to those discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“No principle is more fundamental to our state and federal constitutions than everybody in our society deserves equal protection under the law,” ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua A. Decker said in a statement following the vote. “We can no longer deny the LGBTQ community the same legal protections as everyone else.”
A vote on the ordinance was delayed two months after a December hearing resulted in a tense standoff over lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights.
Mayor Jim Matherly prefaced further consideration of the ordinance on Monday with a call for “calmness and politeness.”
“I want respect in this room tonight,” Matherly urged.
Monday night’s discussion was more subdued than in recent weeks. Approximately 35 people offered public testimony with just a “small majority voicing opposition,” according to the Fairbanks Daily News Miner. Critics of the ordinance expressed fear that it would infringe on their religious rights.
Fairbanks Assemblyman Lance Roberts, a Christian conservative, has been the ordinance’s most vocal opponent. In December, he predicted its passage would “start a war” in the small town of 31,000 people.
“You’re going to try to help some people by hurting others,” Roberts told the council. “You’re going to create conflict in the community that doesn’t have to be there.”
The campaign against Ordinance 6093 has been assisted by several national conservative groups, including the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defending Freedom, the latter of which has introduced anti-transgender bills in dozens of states across the U.S. Both organizations have been designated anti-LGBTQ “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center for their long histories of opposing gay and trans rights.
“Laws that provide special protections based on ‘sexual orientation,’ ‘gender identity or expression’ result in the harassment and punishment of people with deeply held religious beliefs,” according to a website created by these organizations to oppose Ordinance 6093.
City Council member Kathy Ottersten, one of the bill’s sponsors, pushed back on the conservative groups’ claims that the ordinance would provide “special protections” or “create special rights.” She said the ordinance simply seeks to provide LGBTQ people the same rights and protections that other Fairbanks residents enjoy.
“Over the last 11 weeks, people have written and come in every other Monday at our council meetings and testified,” Ottersten told NBC News. “We've heard time and again that this is a bigger issue than anybody thought. There are so many people who get discriminated against, and they don't talk about it.”
Ottersten said “dozens” of Fairbanks residents have come forward to say they’ve been denied medical treatment, fired or refused housing because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Supporters of Ordinance 6093 said the debate over nondiscrimination protections in Fairbanks further illustrated their necessity. Alyssa Quintyne, a field organizer with The Alaska Center advocacy group, claims over 100 students in the Fairbanks School District “reported being attacked, having things stolen from them, or having their lockers vandalized” after the December vote was pushed back. The targets, she said, were predominantly LGBTQ and students perceived to be LGBTQ.
Ordinance 6093 gives LGBTQ people who experience discrimination the ability to seek legal recourse. Because Alaska — like 29 other states — does not enumerate protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, victims often have nowhere else to go.
The Alaska Department of Justice and the State Commission on Human Rights “don't do research on discrimination and hate crimes that happen in the state,” Quintyne said.
“We don't have any local research on just how many people who are LGBTQ have been discriminated against in the workplace,” she added. “That means that our city police department will now have to comply and report hate crimes and other discriminatory cases, instead of just walking away."
Even after Monday’s 4-2 council vote, there is still a chance Mayor Matherly could exercise his veto power. Five members of the council would have needed to vote in favor of the ordinance to make it veto-proof.
“He has said on many occasions that he wants this to be a unanimous vote,” Ottersten said of Mayor Matherly. However, after speaking with Matherly just before Monday’s vote, she said she did not get the impression he was “itching to veto it.”
The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
Should Ordinance 6093 remain intact, it is likely conservative groups will lobby for a public vote on the issue, according to Ottersten. After Anchorage voted 9-2 in favor of trans-inclusive nondiscrimination protections in 2015, the conservative Alaska Family Council successfully petitioned to get the ordinance on the ballot.
The Anchorage protections, however, were ultimately upheld in a historic April 2018 voter referendum. With 53 percent of Anchorage voters electing to keep the ordinance, it marked the first time the public voted in favor of trans rights at the ballot box.
Along with Anchorage, the Alaskan cities of Juneau and Sitka also have LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections on the books.
But despite the often heated debate over Ordinance 6093, supporters say the majority of Fairbanks residents favor LGBTQ rights.
A former activist with ACT UP, Ottersten was one of two trans politicians voted in during the 2018 midterms, along with Liz Lyke of the Fairbanks North Star Borough. It was a first — and a second — for the conservative state.
Due to the intense cold in a city where the winters regularly reach 30 below, Quintyne said the environment breeds communities that are more welcoming and tolerant than one might expect.
“Alaska is all about what we can do to help each other out,” she explained. “We're the type of community that if someone's stuck out on the street, and they're in a ditch, you've got four or five people lined up to help them.”
“Despite the bad things that are publicized about Alaska, our communities are tight knit,” she added. “We have people who care.”