‘About as backward as it gets’
The new policy effectively mirrors much of what Dunleavy was trying to do with his Don't Say Gay bill that the Legislature rejected.
Good evening, Alaska! It’s Monday.
In this edition: Earlier this month, Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor sent schools and public libraries thinly veiled threats of legal repercussions if they don’t abide by his new reinterpretation of state law that conveniently mirrors much of what Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed—and the Alaska Legislature soundly rejected—in his Don’t Say Gay bill earlier this year. Let’s dig into this trend of the Dunleavy administration enacting unpopular policy through his Department of Law and why it matters.
Current mood: 😠
‘About as backward as it gets’
The Alaska Legislature has made clear there’s no chance that Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s forays into the right-wing culture wars—this hyper fixation on singling out LGBTQ+ kids by dictating everything from the sports they play and the books they read to whether their teachers can recognize them for who they are—will become law. Time and again, the majority of legislators have sided with the kids and parents who say the laws will do little but single out and marginalize kids who are already going through it.
But time and again, a Dunleavy administration led by extreme-right Attorney General Treg Taylor has found ways to force their political agenda on Alaska’s kids.
In a pair of letters sent to schools earlier this month, Taylor announced that he has a fresh new reinterpretation of state law that conveniently aligns with his political agenda. Based on a request from Department of Education Commissioner Deena Bishop, a close Dunleavy ally, Taylor has decided the state law requiring parents to be notified before sex-ed classes extends to any mention of gender identity.
“It appears that some school districts have wrongly interpreted ‘human reproduction or sexual matters’ to not include the concept of ‘gender identity,’” he said. “This interpretation both rejects case law, the common understanding of these terms, and the legislature’s intent of passing this statute.”
Both Dunleavy and Taylor, like many stirring right-wing fear over transgender youth, have frequently conflated gender identity with sex. It’s a familiar conservative tactic to smear attempts to treat LGBTQ+ kids with kindness as sexualization, which makes for easier and angrier messaging. Earlier this year, Dunleavy boosted a right-wing anti-trans advocate and called gender-affirming care “pseudoscience” with “lifelong debilitating impacts on children.”
Taylor argues that this notification requirement should now apply to any and all courses where gender identity may come up, including literature and math courses. He also cites the state’s whistle-blower laws, hinting at severe legal consequences.
In other words, it’s safer never to bring it up.
The new policy effectively mirrors much of what Dunleavy was trying to do with his take on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ notorious Don’t Say Gay bill. That legislation would have required teachers to get parents' written consent before discussing gender identity in the classroom. While it’s not an outright ban on such topics coming up in the classroom—something Dunleavy and his backers hide behind while complaining about the comparison to DeSantis’ bill—it effectively does just that when combined with other policies that would have encouraged parents to bring lawsuits against schools and teachers.
Taylor’s threat of legal action was more explicit in a second letter to public schools and libraries, which warned librarians and teachers that they would be charged with felonies if they provided material deemed “harmful to minors” to kids. What that means in a world where right-wing groups are pushing to ban just about any book that doesn’t align with their worldview on everything from sex to politics to race isn’t entirely clear.
It’s also worth noting that the letters landed on the same day the ACLU of Alaska and the Northern Justice Project filed a lawsuit challenging the Mat-Su School District’s banning of 56 books.
While Dunleavy, Taylor and Bishop claim the letters—rife with their grim legal warnings—are simply about informing schools of their duties under the law, others see it very differently.
Lon Garrison, the executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, told the Anchorage Daily News there hasn’t been an outcry about school policy. Instead, he said the districts are already doing what they’re supposed to and that the letter seems more like a threat.
“While they claim to be informing school districts, superintendents and school boards about the law — in actuality, school boards and superintendents are doing what they’re supposed to do,” said Garrison. “The way that it was presented, the way that it’s worded and its intention is to create a sense of intimidation.”
Former Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth penned an op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News, cutting through Taylor’s flimsy legal thinking and outlining what appears to be his true goal.
“Mr. Taylor is attempting to use fear tactics in the hope that school districts blackball all mention of gender identity from our schools, including banning certain books he does not like, as is evident from his pointing to the whistle-blower provisions in the statute,” she wrote. “As a lawyer who often litigates in court the meaning of statutes, I am confident that Mr. Taylor’s ‘guidance’ is not a fair interpretation of this law. It is not supported by the plain language of the statute, and the legislative history confirms that the Legislature did not discuss or intend to include gender identity issues when addressed outside the context of human sexuality coursework. Because the Legislature recently refused to adopt a law reflecting his policy choice, Mr. Taylor is legislating from his executive branch seat — a violation of our constitution.”
She also points out the irony of Taylor’s past arguments that “sex” does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity. That was when Taylor rolled back protections for LGBTQ+ individuals, barring the State Human Rights Commission from pursuing many of the anti-discrimination cases it once did.
The move essentially greenlit discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals “in some instances.”
The Anchorage Daily News editorial board chimed in, noting that Taylor’s priorities are misplaced at a time when the state has been rocked by several brutal cases of domestic violence. The op-ed notes that while Taylor has been busy forcing politics into schools, he’s been far less willing to take any meaningful action against the state’s fundamental problem of violence against women (violence that new research links to Alaska’s sky-high rate of maternal deaths).
“We have a state attorney general who appears more interested in throwing political red meat over a largely manufactured issue than in confronting a very real, urgent crisis that has plagued Alaska for decades and caused our people untold harm,” the board wrote. “As priorities go, that’s about as backward as it gets.”
But perhaps even more telling is the celebration of Taylor’s letters by extreme-right blogs, with one reporting, “Alaska AG puts schools, libraries on notice regarding sexualization of minors.”
Why it matters
Dunleavy and Taylor have been largely undaunted by an Alaska Legislature that has regularly rejected their most conservative of impulses and has been working to implement their policies through other avenues.
After the Alaska Legislature rejected efforts to ban trans athletes from high school sports, the Dunleavy administration coordinated and passed a similar policy through the Alaska Board of Education. After several lengthy hearings, that policy went into effect this fall.
It’s frankly hard to say just how sincere any of these right-wing impulses are within the Dunleavy administration, especially given all the prognostication in the political sphere about a more moderate second term for the Republican.
What’s clear, however, is that there are several high-stakes elections coming up in 2024 that Dunleavy and his allies are very keen on winning. There are legislative elections that are a must-win if Dunleavy hopes to get a more compliant Legislature for his final two years in office. Dunleavy ally Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson will be on the ballot in the spring (a key Dunleavy official is helping write his speeches), and voters may very likely decide the future of the state’s election system in the 2024 statewide elections (a system that conservatives have complained has diminished their ability to elect right-wing candidates).
“Taylor knows, just like every Alaskan, that our House and Senate are almost completely matched between Republicans and Democrats, so it’s not an easy answer to have fixed legislatively,” Anchorage Democratic Sen. Löki Tobin, the chair of Senate Education, told the ADN of the letters. “This just continues to throw fuel on a fire that one particular party seems to think is a winning election topic.”
While the Dunelavy administration seems to be picking fights over right-wing red meat issues like anti-trans youth and anti-abortion measures, the last few years of elections across the country have shown that’s not exactly a winning strategy. Then again, as Tobin pointed out, far-right politicians have never seemed particularly interested in what the public at large thinks.
“It just seems like an escalation of ‘we don’t really care what the public wants or thinks — we’re going to rewrite the way that we all operate with no public input or feedback or engagement,’” she said.
The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.