ANCHORAGE, Ak. (NBC NEWS) – Nearly 53 percent of voters in Anchorage, Alaska cast their ballots in opposition to a proposition that would have required transgender people to use public facilities that match the sex on their birth certificates.
The historic April 3 election, conducted primarily through mail-in-ballots, was the first time U.S. citizens directly voted on a so-called transgender “bathroom bill.”
“Anchorage voters refused to succumb to hate and bigotry by rejecting this discriminatory, anti-transgender ballot measure. Community leaders, businesses, faith leaders, and public officials all spoke out in support of equality,” Chad Griffin, president of national LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement sent to NBC News.
The unofficial results, which will be certified on April 17, came as a relief to Anchorage transgender activist Lillian Lennon.
“If Proposition 1 were to pass, I would fear that I could be blocked from using the restroom that I identify with,” Lennon, 19, told NBC News. “I would be forced to go into a men’s restroom where I wouldn’t feel safe or protected, and I definitely don’t think that anyone in that restroom would feel particularly comfortable with me there either.”
The ballot initiative also would have reversed portions of Anchorage’s 2015 LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance and would have allowed employers in the city to dictate which accommodations trans people can use. It was one of an estimated 129 anti-LGBTQ measures introduced in 2017, according to the Human Rights Campaign (12 of these measures become law as of January, according HRC).
Lennon was a field organizer for No on Prop 1, a major grassroots effort led by the LGBTQ activist group Fair Anchorage that encouraged residents to vote against the proposition. The activist recalled receiving her own ballot in the mail.
“It was like ‘Wow, this is real,’” Lennon said. “It seemed like we were arguing over an idea before, but to actually hold the ballot proposition in my hand and read over exactly what it would do to me and my community was kind of shocking, because you have to think there are thousands of other people who are also receiving this ballot in the mail. They have this in their hand, and they have the capability of taking away these protections or leaving them for us.”
Lennon said she immediately ripped open the ballot, marked “no” and mailed it in. “That was definitely a relief,” she added.
Supporters of the proposition said it would have safeguarded privacy and protected women and children from potential sexual predators.
"Not everyone should have access to any intimate space they want because of how they feel,” Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action, wrote in a statement. The nonprofit Christian public policy group collected thousands of signatures to get Proposition 1 added to the ballot.
Lennon said the ballot initiative was simply designed to enforce one thing: discrimination against transgender people.
“They are claiming to protect the safety and privacy in restrooms, but I think the real factors behind it is targeting transgender citizens in Anchorage,” she said.
Lennon said Proposition 1 would have been “catastrophic” for trans Alaskans like herself, many of whom live in and around the city. In fact, 40 percent of the conservative state’s residents live in the Anchorage area.
Many of Alaska’s transgender citizens are already vulnerable. About 30 percent of trans Alaskans live in poverty, and 18 percent are unemployed, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.
No on Prop 1’s victory did not come easily, according to Lennon. Over the last several months, the campaign went tit-for-tat with activists from Yes on Prop 1, a campaign organized by Alaska Family Action. The “No” campaign raised more than $824,000, compared to the $128,000 its opponent raised, according to Alaska Public Media. The campaigns battled for voters through a series of heated advertisements. They also waged a fierce battle in the streets as volunteers from both groups raced to canvass voters in the city of nearly 300,000.
For Lennon and her fellow volunteers, that meant getting up early every weekend since August to knock on voters’ doors.
“I’ve had a lot of positive interactions with people going door to door, even with people who haven’t heard about Proposition 1 or aren’t educated on transgender issues,” she said.
One voter she spoke with expressed concern about sharing the bathroom with trans women, she recalled.
“I was able to explain that I’m a transgender woman myself. If Proposition 1 were to pass, I would be forced to go into the men’s restroom, and I’m scared of what that would mean for me, what that would mean for me and so many of my friends and loved ones who also identify as transgender,” Lennon said.
It was the first time many of these citizens had met a trans person face-to-face, according to Lennon. She said those personal interactions likely made a difference in how they voted.
“I think it’s hard to say to someone’s face, ‘No, I don’t agree that you should have equal rights,’” she said, adding, “It’s a more human connection.”
But some voters did tell her just that, she said.
“I’ve definitely knocked on the door of a Yes on Proposition 1 voter,” Lennon said. “It’s definitely disappointing to end up on their doorstep and hear, ‘Actually, I really don’t care about what you think, I’m voting ‘yes’ on Proposition 1.’”
In those moments, she said, she just had to pick herself back up and keep going.
“This work is really integral, and it’s a quick pick-me-up when you get to talk to another registered voter who believes in the same basic human rights as you do and really appreciates the work you’re doing,” she said.
While Proposition 1 could have been a devastating blow to the trans community in Anchorage, Lennon said it helped further the continuing national conversation about transgender rights.
“This fight isn’t just about No on Proposition 1,” Lennon said. “It’s about continuing this discussion and pushing human rights for everyone."