Alaska media don't get trans United Methodist minister-turned-activist

While teaching at the University of Alaska two years ago, I picked up a lot of resentment on the part of the residents against what they call Outsiders (with a capital “O”) showing up in the 49th state and telling Alaskans what to do.

Alaska has a large transient population (including a lot of military personnel who transfer in and out), so lots of folks there figure that until you’ve lasted through a few winters, you’re just passing through.

Still, many Alaska residents have come from somewhere else.

One of the folks who arrived there several years ago was a transgendered United Methodist minister. I’ll return in a moment to the history of Drew Phoenix but first, I want to point out how he made the news this week in this story from the Associated Press:

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) -- The Alaska Legislature on Tuesday rejected the appointment of Drew Phoenix, a transgender man, to serve on the state’s human rights commission.
The vote came near the end of an hours-long joint session called to consider Gov. Bill Walker’s nominees to boards, commissions and administration posts. Phoenix was the only nominee to be voted down.
Leading up to the vote, some conservative groups sought to paint Phoenix, who has advocated for LGBT rights, as too political for the post.

The story then includes some vague quotes from a Republican and a Democrat and then:

In a phone interview Tuesday evening, Phoenix said he was “incredibly upset and disheartened” by the vote.
“I just find it so ironic that somebody like myself, with so much years’ experience personally and professional working on behalf of human rights, that they would not confirm me to the commission on human rights,” he said.
Phoenix said a state Senate committee that held confirmation hearings asked him questions related to his work as a transgender man with the LGBT community and if, given the opportunity, he would work to advance issues of equality for the LGBT community through the commission. He said he replied that, if that’s what the commission seeks to do, he would.
He said one conservative group has framed the advancement of LBGT people as posing a threat to religious freedom. He said he is an ordained Christian minister and values religious freedom.

“He said” he is an ordained Christian minister? That isn't an established fact?

How sloppy can you get? There are a zillion articles out there about the uproar Phoenix caused a decade ago when the minister, at the time known as Ann Gordon, announced she was transitioning to a man. There’s no question whether Phoenix has been ordained.

Renaming himself as Drew Phoenix, the pastor basked in press interviews for a time but by 2010 had relocated to Alaska where –- like many immigrants to the Last Frontier -- he figured he could start over. Which he did as head of a homosexual advocacy group, plus a stint with the Alaska branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

So, back to the vote in Juneau: Isn’t it obvious there’s a backstory here somewhere? A piece by the Alaska Dispatch News says it’s the conservatives around the state who are united against Phoenix. Although the story doesn’t say it, I’m guessing that those conservatives had googled media coverage of Phoenix’s sex change and wondered if he was going to make a state commission a bully pulpit for transgenderism.

I clicked on the Facebook page of Alaska Family Action (AFA) , a group opposing Phoenix. They were claiming that Phoenix opposes religious freedom mainly because of his affiliation with the ACLU. It would have been nice if reporters had dug up whether Phoenix is still a functioning United Methodist minister and explained some of the religion dynamics at work.

Instead, the Dispatch let him get away with a “no comment” on the AFA’s charges against him, which may have been a bad decision on his part because Phoenix was the sole person out of Gov. Bill Walker’s 98 nominees who was voted down.

Phoenix’s reaction was a bit unfortunate:

A downcast Phoenix, reached by phone afterward, said the 35-24 vote against him in a joint House-Senate session was a case of "transphobia."
"Discrimination has once again reared its ugly head," said Phoenix, a man who was born female. "I'm just sad the Legislature isn't in touch with Alaskan values — treating people like they want to be treated."

Maybe he’s right but there’s no better way to annoy Alaskans than to say –- as a quasi-recent arrival -– that the natives don’t know what they’re doing. He seems like a very likeable guy. According to his Facebook page, he's married (to a woman), lives in Fairbanks (yes!) and posts cool animal videos. But most Alaskans would still peg him as a recent arrival. 

Wanting to get to the bottom of this, I turned to former Alaska GOP spokeswoman-turned-political-blogger Suzanne Downing. I’d found her behind-the-scenes commentary very useful while in Alaska and she had something to say about Mr. Phoenix. Sure enough, she hit it right on the head:

One of the concerns many conservative Christians have is that laws are shifting that prevent them from living out their faith -- florists are forced by law to provide bouquets for gay weddings, bakers end up shutting their doors because they don’t want to bake cakes that celebrate same-sex unions.
Much of the tension has been in the wedding-services arena, but other issues are arising that involve bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports participation by youth. Already, one boy is competing against girls in Haines high school track because he “identifies” as a girl.
The Human Rights Commission does not, at this time, deal with these sexual orientation issues, but many in the religious community worry about mission creep -- the adding-on of rights for which the commission would be the quasi-judicial authority.
Phoenix is seen as an advocate for adding a new category of legal protections for various gender-based lifestyles, including gay, transgender, or any of the 58 gender descriptions that Facebook provides. He makes no bones about his advocacy for including sexual orientation as protected categories.

Why is it often the bloggers who get it? Maybe they talk to people reporters do not talk to?

It didn’t take Downing long to explain the fears that the religious community had concerning Phoenix; fears that Phoenix unwisely did not take the time to dispel. Why didn’t other reporters connect the dots instead of falling into the old stereotype of Neanderthal conservatives who hate trans people? 

Sounds like some Alaskans saw how certain kinds of lawsuits are getting filed elsewhere in the country and they wanted no part of it there.

Maybe their fears are legit, maybe they're not but the local media could have done a better job of explaining the issues behind it all. Talking to a variety of sources helps.

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