ANCHORAGE, Alaska - City voters decide this week whether Alaska's traditional frontier-style acceptance of people regardless of their background extends to gays and lesbians.
At issue is an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation for 3,300 city employees and workers hired through municipal contractors.
"If this ordinance fails, it would send a very bad message," said Arliss Sturgulewski, a former state senator from Anchorage and a supporter of gay rights.
"It would contradict the view that people hold about Alaska - its independence and its tolerance."
The city Assembly passed the ordinance in January following weeks of bitter public hearings that pitted the religious right against civil libertarians.
Mayor Tom Fink vetoed the measure, but the veto was overridden by the Assembly.
Then a group called Citizens to Repeal the Homosexual Ordinance formed and took less than a month to collect 20,000 petition signatures, well beyond the 5,700 required to put the measure to a vote on April 20.
The sponsor of the measure, Assemblyman John Wood, says he expects it to fail.
"My observation of this community is if you don't conform to what's normal, whether that's Christianity or being a fiscal conservative, you have a much rougher row to hoe," he said.
Steve Haycox, a University of Alaska history professor and longtime Anchorage resident, said that if voters approve the measure, it will be despite the state's pioneer spirit, not because of it.
"The way of the West operated pretty narrowly," said Haycox, who favors the ordinance. "It was racist, it put women into fairly specific gender roles and it didn't leave much place for people who don't live up to the macho-man, self-reliant, rugged-individualist image."
The Rev. Jerry Prevo, a Baptist minister who helped turn back a gay-rights measure 15 years ago, also says gays have misjudged the city's tolerance.
"In Alaska, we live and let live until one group won't let another group live like they want," he said. "Instead of just doing their own thing, in the privacy of their own homes, they have launched an effort to force government to endorse homosexuality."
Police say they have begun tracking hate crimes, including a Valentine's Day attack on two men who were struck with a baseball bat and pipe as they left a diner holding hands. Three teenagers were arrested.
One gay man, Dan Carter, a city transit worker for 14 years, addressed the proposed ordinance in a letter to the Anchorage Daily News. He recalled a past award as municipal employee of the year.
"This award wasn't given to me because I was straight - or gay," Carter wrote. "It recognized me for my work accomplishments, and that's the way it should remain."