Short of a constitutional amendment, Kenai and Soldotna have no alternative but to comply with an Alaska Supreme Court decision ruling it unconstitutional for states and cities to deny same-sex couples benefits, a ruling that has drawn praise from local gay and lesbian advocates.
“Unless they want to challenge it (and) make themselves a test case,” said Thomas Boedeker, city manager for Soldotna. “Probably not a wise move at this point.”
The decision could result in an increase in Kenai and Soldotna cities’ health care bills and raise premiums for their employees.
“It’s difficult to imagine that anything that increases coverage and those covered won’t drive costs up,” Boedeker said.
But area gay and lesbian rights advocates say the money would be well spent.
The Kenai Peninsula’s gay and lesbian population may be greater than many local residents think because few gays and lesbians on the peninsula feel comfortable being open to the public about their sexuality, said Joan Merrick, a registered agent for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG.
However, there are same-sex couples living in both Soldotna and Kenai, including some with children, who would welcome the opportunity to have the same access to benefits being offered to heterosexual couples, she said.
“People struggle when they don’t have benefits,” she said. “When you don’t have those benefits it makes it hard to plan long-term.”
In addition, Marcia Beau-champ, president of PFLAG, said the climate for gays and lesbians at both government and private work places could use improvement. Area gays and lesbians continue to worry about things like losing their jobs for bringing their partners to Christmas parties at work, Beauchamp said.
“This is no San Francisco or New York, where everyone feels free to be themselves,” she said. “We still have a long way to go as far as diversity and tolerance goes.”
However, Soldotna Mayor David Carey said he does not believe the local community targets gays and lesbians for discrimination.
“We want people to keep their nose out of our business and, in general, we keep our nose out of theirs,” Carey said. “For the most part, I don’t think people are looking to put political labels on other people.”
But Merrick says area gay and lesbian issues have been neglected.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, for example, is the biggest school district in Alaska that does not include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy, Merrick said.
“They say it’s not necessary,” Merrick said.
However, Beauchamp said the social environment for local gay and lesbian teens is even more hostile than for adults.
From Nikiski, borough assembly member Gary Superman said he detected a mostly neutral climate toward gay and lesbian issues and said he knows of a lot of openly gay people who live in the area, none of whom are closeted.
“Not to say that there aren’t any, we all know there are,” he said.
Superman said he did not think gays and lesbians faced significant discriminatory issues on the peninsula, but he stopped short of characterizing the peninsula as being supportive of gay and lesbian rights.
“It’s a pretty conservative area,” he said. “I’m sure there will be some opposition to (the court ruling) if it becomes an issue.”
The borough has not yet taken any action with regard to the ruling, and borough officials would not offer any comments on the social implications, said Bill Popp, special assistant to borough Mayor John Williams.
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