I’ve been fighting injustice in Alaska for my entire adult life. From Black and Indigenous rights to LGBTQ2+ rights, there is a lot to do in the battle against hate and discrimination throughout our state and nation.
So, I was pleased to read about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming employment protections for LGBTQ2+ Americans. The court ruled that companies don’t have a right to discriminate against LGBTQ2+ people in the workplace, that we are protected under federal sex discrimination law.
This is a positive step forward, but our work is far from finished. Our nation has so much to do to dismantle systems of racism and oppression. And there are still critical gaps in our federal nondiscrimination laws and the laws of Alaska for LGBTQ2+ people.
I identify as pansexual and genderqueer, and I’m a proud member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute & Shoshone Tribe. As an Indigenous LGBTQ2+ activist, I am dedicated to fighting all forms of injustice, including racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
During colonization both Alaska Native and Native American peoples were forced to assimilate. The boarding schools (also known as Indian Residential Schools) forbade Indigenous children from using their own languages and names, as well as from practicing their religion and culture. They were given new English names, clothes, and haircuts, and told they must abandon their way of life because it was inferior to the colonizers. They were forced to practice the religion of their oppressors. The colonizers’ religion taught us about a two-gendered system and heteronormativity.
I believe the fight for LGBTQ2+ rights and protections are a big part of decolonizing our lives and reconnecting to our roots. Many Indigenous tribes across the world had a concept of more than two genders and many ways to love each other prior to colonization. Forcing Americans to live by oppressive religious standards is a form of continued colonization and white supremacy.
At times it remains difficult to live in Alaska knowing that I’m not legally protected as an LGBTQ2+ individual. I was involved in the movement to pass Fairbanks Ordinance 6093, which would have provided comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ2+ people. Unfortunately, it was vetoed by the mayor after passing by a majority. The months leading up to the veto were traumatic for all of us, as we faced community members calling us biblical abominations and praising eugenics.
Despite this, our local Fairbanks LGBTQ2+ community and our allies remain strong together in our fight for equality. I continue to dedicate my time lobbying for protections in Juneau and throughout the state, especially for Black and Indigenous LGBTQ2+ people, who are disproportionately affected by systemic racism.
People leave Alaska because they don’t feel accepted or protected. I get this, I have two multi-tribal children and I want them to feel comfortable calling Alaska home. I don’t want to leave and I don’t want my children to leave. I want to see change. But the current patchwork of protections is unfair and unworkable.
Now that the nation’s highest court has decided that LGBTQ2+ workplace discrimination is illegal, it’s time for Congress and Alaska lawmakers to do their part. We need comprehensive protections in all areas of life, including housing and public spaces.
I have transgender friends who were kicked out of their homes when landlords or family found out they were transitioning, and they couldn’t do anything about it. Several trans friends were denied health care and have also been denied service by a local business. Dignity and respect should never depend on who you are, who you love, or what ZIP code you call home.
The Supreme Court decision was an important step forward, and I applaud Sen. Lisa Murkowski for speaking out after the ruling saying, “People should not live in fear of being discriminated against or losing their job because of their LGBTQ2+ status.” I hope she will continue to stand with us.
To truly protect LGBTQ2+ Alaskans, we need Congress and our state lawmakers to finish the job.
Rina Kowalski is an Indigenous LGBTQ2+ activist, the founder of Indigenous Lives Matter and a mother of two who lives in Fairbanks.