When Oliver Smith started thinking about getting his master’s, he wasn’t really sure what part of the country he’d end up in. That would depend on finding a professor who shared his research interests.
Finally, he got a response from a professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage who works in biological anthropology. After starting school though, Oliver’s research took a turn, to medical anthropology—specifically, studying how discrimination affects transgender Alaskans’ health and their healthcare experiences.
It’s a topic close to his heart since Oliver himself is transgender.
It was a major move for him from North Carolina, but three years later, he’s absolutely in love with Anchorage. It’s phenomenal to be so close to nature, he says, and—contrary to stereotypes of Alaska that emanate from the lower 48—the cultural landscape is vibrant too, especially the music scene.
But the people are really what sealed the deal for him.
“I love that the majority of the people I have met in Anchorage are genuinely good people who go out of their way to help others even when they have just met someone,” he says. “That’s why I have stayed, as well as having an amazingly supportive group of graduate school professors who want to see me succeed and friends who have supported me through it all.”
A year and a half into his program, in 2015, the Anchorage Assembly passed an ordinance protecting LGBT people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. Knowing that he would be explicitly protected, by law, from discrimination made him even more proud to call Anchorage home, and even more secure in his decision to study here.
“I love that the majority of the people I have met in Anchorage are genuinely good people who go out of their way to help others even when they have just met someone. That’s why I have stayed, as well as having an amazingly supportive group of graduate school professors who want to see me succeed and friends who have supported me through it all.” —Oliver Smith, University of Alaska
Now, though, he’s worried about Proposition 1. If passed by voters next April, Proposition 1 would repeal the parts of the law that protect transgender people like Oliver from discrimination. In fact, Proposition 1 would go as far as allowing strangers to check a person’s birth certificate in certain public facilities—a gross violation of everyone’s privacy and an invitation to harassment.
Oliver thinks back to his childhood, even before he was living as the boy he knew himself to be, and the anxiety that would creep up when he needed to use the restroom in public. Frequently, he’d be stopped and questioned.
“As a young kid, I knew I had to go in the women’s room but I looked like a boy. At the time, my sex assigned at birth was female. I remember people, constantly, stopping me, saying something like ‘what are you doing? You are going in the wrong bathroom!’ I knew what bathroom was appropriate for me to use, and people were telling me the opposite. It was incredibly confusing and distressing, especially as a kid.”
If Anchorage’s non-discrimination law protecting transgender people from this kind of discrimination is repealed, he fears the experience of simply going out in public will be much worse for him and other transgender people—even dangerous.
That’s because the effects of Proposition 1 would reach far beyond bathrooms. At its core, Proposition 1 eliminates all protections for transgender people under the law, severely curtailing their ability to participate in public life, and support themselves and their families. Right now, the law protects transgender people from being discriminated against at work, in housing or being turned away from a public business because of who they are.
“We already face serious discrimination issues, and [repealing the law] would make it so much worse. I believe it would invite violence and harassment. It’s something that all of us (transgender individuals) live in fear of on a daily basis.” —Oliver Smith, University of Anchorage
If Proposition 1 passes, the threat of this kind of discrimination would return to Anchorage—in addition to the fear of increased violence and harassment.
“We already face serious discrimination issues, and [repealing the law] would make it so much worse,” Oliver says, thinking of a friend who had several ribs broken from a violent incident in an Anchorage public restroom that occurred because someone discovered their transgender identity.
“I believe it would invite violence and harassment. It’s something that all of us (transgender individuals) live in fear of on a daily basis.”
And, he says, if residents of Anchorage think repealing these nondiscrimination protections would only be a problem for transgender people, they should think again.
“This really jeopardizes a lot of people’s privacy,” he says. “Are you going to carry your birth certificate with you? Well, if you lose that, you’ve lost your identity. That’s going to be a problem for people with misprints, and people who don’t have [birth certificates].”
Empowering strangers to question someone’s gender based on how they’re “supposed” to look endangers everyone who doesn’t conform to rigid gender stereotypes. This is especially true for transgender women, who are more likely to have violence perpetrated against them than any other group.
Proposition 1 will appear on the ballot on April 3rd, 2018. Until then, Oliver will be working hard to defeat it. The fight, for him, is a fight for his life.
“[Proposition 1] would seriously threaten my safety,” he says, “And the safety of all of my trans friends.”