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Equal rights measure fuels passionate debate

Drew Phoenix, left, and his girlfriend, Ellen Robertson, talk about a ballot initiative going before local voters Tuesday that calls for equal legal protections for gay and transgender residents, Friday, March 30, 2012, in Anchorage, Alaska. Drew, 53, a t
Drew Phoenix, left, and his girlfriend, Ellen Robertson, talk about a ballot initiative going before local voters Tuesday that calls for equal legal protections for gay and transgender residents, Friday, March 30, 2012, in Anchorage, Alaska. Drew, 53, a transgender male, says he knew he was born the wrong gender at age three.
Rachel D'Oro, Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Drew Phoenix was 3 years old when he realized he was born the wrong gender, and as a young girl named Ann Gordon he was quite vocal about it, even engaging in a couple of fights over it in kindergarten.

"From an early age," he says, "if somebody would say, 'Oh, what a cute girl,' I would say, 'No, I'm a boy.'"

Five decades later, the transgender man is speaking out in favor of a ballot initiative going before voters in Alaska's largest city Tuesday that calls for equal legal protections for gay and transgender residents. Phoenix, who made the medical transition to a male six years ago, has become a public voice for the most contentious issue in the Anchorage election.

The measure has fanned passionate debate between both supporters and opponents, overshadowing even a heated mayor's race. Proposition 5 asks whether municipal protections against discrimination based on race, sex, religion, marital status and other factors should be amended to include sexual orientation and transgender identity. Nationally, 13 states, 134 cities and counties, and the District of Columbia have discrimination laws for private entities that include protections for transgender individuals, according to figures from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Alaska has no such law.

"When it comes to interaction in the public, I should have the same equal rights as you and be protected in public accommodations and employment," said Phoenix, who appears in an ad for One Anchorage, the group behind the initiative. Phoenix, 53, is among Anchorage residents who believe they have been discriminated against because they are gay or transgender.

Opponents — Protect Your Rights, Vote No on Prop 5 — say passage of the initiative would threaten religious freedoms, as demonstrated by cases outside Alaska where people have been sued for refusing to do business with gay people. Group chairman Jim Minnery said Anchorage already is a tolerant city and the proposed amendment to the discrimination law is unnecessary. Proponents want nothing more than affirmation of a lifestyle, he said.

If the measure passes, there would be certain exemptions, including some religious organizations and four-plexes where the owner or manager lived in one of the units. That doesn't go far enough, according to opponents.

"We oppose any measure that would restrict individuals from operating their businesses in a way consistent with their deeply held convictions," Minnery said. "We're a watchman on the wall just letting the church and individuals ... become aware of the real risks."

A new ad by the group shows a hairy-legged cartoon man in a dress presenting a job application to a cartoon day care operator named Carol while a voice-over states: "If Proposition 5 passes, it will be illegal for Carol to refuse a job to a transvestite who wants to work with toddlers." Carol risks losing customers if she hires him, the ad states, or she would face fines or imprisonment if she doesn't.

Under the city's municipal code, only a person who "willfully resists, prevents, impedes or interferes" with the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission or its representatives and is convicted in court faces a fine of up to $500 or up to 30 days in jail, or both. Commission director Pam Basler said she knows of no discrimination case where that occurred.

The Protect Your Rights ads, which feature cartoon characters, have sparked outrage among Proposition 5 supporters, including former Gov. Tony Knowles, co-chair of the One Anchorage campaign. The tone of the ads has taken an ugly turn in the last days of the campaign, Knowles said at a One Anchorage press conference Tuesday. He called the ads offensive, dehumanizing and distorted.

"To those responsible for these false and hurtful ads, enough is enough. Stop it," he said. "Take them down."

Minnery said such demands are an assault on free speech rights and said proponents are hypocritical for slamming the depiction of a transvestite when the initiative language includes no definition for transgender.

"I think the primary concern of the other side is that it has hit a nerve of truth and they're concerned about the effectiveness of the ads," Minnery said.

To Phoenix, the ads are horrific. He is not a cartoon, he says, but someone who grew up trying to conform to pressures of family and others to act and dress like a female long before transgender identity entered society's awareness and conversation. Looking back, he compares his dilemma to pushing an inflated ball under water. It can be submerged for a while, but ultimately will pop up again and again.

An ordained United Methodist minister, he was serving a church in Baltimore when he was the first transgender Methodist minister to publicly come out. The church filed internal charges against him, saying he should not be serving as a minister. Phoenix said he won the case because there was nothing listed in the church law against transgender ministers.

Later, he was ready for a fresh start and moved to Anchorage in 2008 with his girlfriend, Ellen Robertson, and now works as managing director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.

In Anchorage, Phoenix tried to rent three different homes, but was turned down after credit checks called up his name as a female and he explained he was a transgender. With such challenges, he knows discrimination is real. Even so, he is more comfortable with himself than he was in his past life.

"I'm not the actor playing a cross-dresser in a sitcom," he said. "I'm a real person."