There were some tense moments at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting Tuesday night, regarding a resolution of support for House Bill 198 in the Alaska Legislature, which would add gender identity and sexual orientation as a protected class to the law that allows for increased sentences for people who commit hate crimes.

Assembly President Kelly Cooper called the meeting to a halt at one point during public comment on the resolution. 

Tammie Willis, of Sterling, is one of several people who spoke in favor of the resolution. She talked about her experiences finding a threatening note with gay slurs on her truck, having a rock shatter her windshield and being attacked at her home.   

“On December 9, things escalated to include an assault in my home, where I was repeatedly cut with a knife and punched until almost my entire left side was covered in bruises,” Willis said. “It took 20 staples and two stitches to put me back together and almost a month for the bruises to heal.”

After Willis’ testimony, Assemblyman Jesse Bjorkman questioned whether Willis was lying about being attacked.

The Kenai City Council on Wednesday joined Soldotna in passing a resolution supporting House Bill 198, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes under the state's existing hate crimes statute.

Tammie Willis testified to the council. She was attacked at her home in Sterling on Dec. 9. Before that, she found a note on her truck full of gay slurs and threatening violence. She also had her windshield smashed by a rock that bore a gay slur. She says the Federal Bureau of Investigations has taken over the case under the federal hate crimes statute, since Alaska law lacks a provision to consider the three instances together as a hate crime.

“For the life of me, I don't know why every other class was included in the list of aggravators but sexual orientation and gender identity,” Willis said. “But we are the population of people that is facing the most violence and the most hate right now. It's grown tremendously over the last three years and it's being definitely felt here on the peninsula, as well. So this is an important piece of legislation. And your resolution means a lot to us in the LGBTQ community because it shows that this is a community that's not going to tolerate the hate."

Willis says two things would change if HB 198 were to become law. It would mean hate crime statistics could be tracked for Alaska. There's currently no good way to gather that data since Alaska doesn't consider crimes motivated by anti-LGBTQ sentiment as hate crimes.

"Consequently, when a hate crime occurs towards someone in the LGBTQ community, whether the troopers or the Soldotna police or anybody actually looks into it and considers it a hate crime, it's not being reported to the FBI, so it's not included in the FBI statistics, so we don't have any real numbers of what the hate crime rate is in Alaska against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity," she said.

The Soldotna City Council passed a resolution supporting House Bill 198 that would expand the state’s existing hate crimes statute to include sexual orientation and gender identity. That would allow stricter sentencing for crimes targeting people because of those characteristics.

The council passed the measure its meeting Wednesday.

Councilman Jordan Chilson submitted the resolution, following up a pledge he made at a town hall meeting held Jan. 4 to discuss safety among the LGBTQ community. That meeting happened in response to reported instances of harassment and physical assault against Tammie Willis, of Sterling. Willis testified to the council.

“This resolution means a lot to me because I have been personally affected,” Willis said. “But it also means a lot to me because there are a lot of other people in the community and across Alaska who live in fear every day because of who they are. Or lack the ability to live authentically as who they are because they have that same fear of violence. 

Jenny Neyman/KDLL

The Soldotna City Council at its meeting Wednesday will consider a resolution of support for Alaska House Bill 198, which would expand Alaska’s hate crimes statute to include sexual orientation or gender identity.

Currently, Alaska statutes allow the court system to increase the sentencing of defendants convicted of crimes that are found to be motivated by a victim’s race, sex, color, creed, physical or mental disability, ancestry or national origin. HB 198 would include sexual orientation and gender identity to that list.

Jenny Neyman/KDLL

When local LGBTQ activist Tammie Willis was attacked by a man with a knife outside her Sterling home early the morning of Dec. 9, the experience was all the more terrifying because she was alone.

At a town hall forum held Saturday at the Soldotna Library, she met more of a community than she realized existed on the central peninsula.

“And seeing the outpouring of support and the people who want to make a difference and who really, genuinely want to make the community more open, more accepting and more welcoming and safe for everyone is really, really helping me move forward,” Willis said.

More than 150 people squeezed into the community room at the library, some to share their experiences as LGBTQ people in the central Kenai Peninsula, most to listen to those experiences and show their support.

Willis reported finding a threatening note on her truck, full of homophobic slurs, on Nov. 11. On Nov. 22, she reported someone throwing a rock at her windshield as she drove near Kenai Peninsula College, where she works. Then came the assault Dec. 9. Soldotna Police and Alaska State Troopers are investigating the incidents but have made no arrests.

“I don’t want to stand up here and say, you know, this act of violence is the reason why we should do better, we’ve always needed to do better. And I’m sorry that I had to bring it to attention this way because this is not the way I wanted to do it,” she said. “But now that we have everybody’s attention, I’m really hoping that this community, the people who have gathered in this room here, will help me work to do better.”