Case Study: Arkansas

“…we have a long way to go for actual equality and justice, not only in the law, but in the eyes of the people. For now, we’ll start with the law.”

I’m looking at transgender rights and where we are in each state with the fight to get rights for transgender people. It’s a struggle that is just starting to garner support from the public in some places– and a very hot issue right now.  Even in states where there are ample protections in place for sexual orientation, there are still no protections for gender orientation.

In my research I’m looking at three areas:  does the state have protections against discrimination by gender orientation? Does the state have protections for hate crimes against transgender people? And, what does it require to get a birth certificate name changed.  But I keep bumping into a more interesting story.

Take Arkansas. Please. (Rimshot.)

Arkansas is a perfect example as to where the controversial issue is right now for most of the country in early 2016.  Now, sexual activity between people of the same gender has been legal for — gosh! — about 11 years now, although there are still no legal protections against discrimination of gay people, let alone any protections for hate crimes.  So you know that transgender rights and protections aren’t going to be an easy sell.  I mean, it’s the South, right?

But along comes the Fayetteville City Council with their highfalutin espresso drinks and liberal ways.  In 2014, they passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity.  That’s less than two years ago.  Lest you think that Fayetteville is stockpiled with extra radical sex positive people, though, the voters of Fayetteville defeated the ordinance that December by 51%.  That’s a mighty close margin.

Now on high alert, the state Senate met and passed the Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act in February of 2015.  That’s a little over a year ago. Why it’s called an “Improvement Act” and what it has to do with “Intrastate Commerce” is a mystery we’ll leave to brighter political minds than mind.  This is an act that prohibits “any county, municipality, or other political subdivision of the state from adopting or enforcing an ordinance, resolution, rule, or policy that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in state law”.

It makes an exception for employees of a local government.  So basically it’s saying, go ahead Fayetteville City Council.  Do your thing and make your statements. But they’ll never be law. This Act passed both the state Senate (24-8, 2 abstentions) and the state House of Representatives (58-21, with 21 either abstaining or just voting present).

It’s worth noting that it passed without the signature of Governor Asa Hutchinson who seems okay despite being an old privileged white guy.  He made his name early in his career by prosecuting a white supremacist organization and more recently came out in favor of medical marijuana use.

While the Improvement Act was being hotly debated on the state Senate floor, the Eureka Springs City Council had their own ideas in mind.  The very same day the Act passed the state Senate and went to the state’s House of Representatives the Eureka Springs City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In April 2015, the board in Little Rock voted in protections for transgender people.  In June 2015 that pesky Fayetteville City Council passed a new ordinance with protections for transgender people.

It’s looking good, right?

Not so much. On September 1, the Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued a statement that the Fayetteville ordinance was in violation of state law and unenforceable. Not to be squelched, the Fayetteville city council sent the ordinance to the voters, and this time it was upheld by 52% of the voters.

Arkansas is a microcosm of the kind of battle most states are having with transgender protections. People in those states just don’t want to give up their right to discriminate against deviants and use a bathroom in which presumably all the other people share the same plumbing that they do.

California, by contrast, has had anti-discrimination protections for gender orientation since 2004.

So there’s hope, but we have a long way to go for actual equality and justice, not only in the law, but in the eyes of the people.  For now, we’ll start with the law.

This piece is Part One of a series on Transgender Rights.  If you want to help along the causes of social justice, please contact your state senators and representatives, and your federal senators and representatives, and let them know this issue matters to you.  

— Virginia Lore is a cisgender woman who volunteers with The Center for Sex Positive Culture in Seattle, WA.



3 thoughts on “Case Study: Arkansas”

  1. Thank you for writing this. Arkansas is my home state and while I’ll miss it for the scenic nature and many of the good people (including my family), I can’t live where I have no protection from the government.


  2. It’s the same story with Kansas (my long time ago home state). Legislation was recently introduced that would allow people to sue for $2,500 every time they saw a transgender person go into the “wrong” bathroom. Glad to be living in a state now that gives my gender fluid teenager some basic protections.


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