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It is not enough to simply say we want a better world. Eventually, a person, a community, a city has to step up and be the change. That time is approaching for Little Rock.
This city, like a lot of cities in the South, is a blue island in the middle of a sea of Republican red. If you need any proof of this, look at the anti-LGBT bills that have issued from the Arkansas General Assembly in the past few weeks. Many of our Republican legislators seem perfectly willing to pummel their own state on the national stage if it serves their personal prejudices and gets their names in the headlines. In the process, they're telling inclusive corporations and progressive Americans, gay and straight, to stay far away from Arkansas, the land of beautiful scenery and ugly views. For the LGBT folks who already live here, meanwhile, these pieces of legislation serve as a warning that's about as subtle as a burning cross: Your kind is not welcome. You may have been born and raised here, but we are going to make sure that you feel like a pariah.
Passed in February and allowed to become Act 137 without Gov. Asa Hutchinson's signature, Senate Bill 202 by Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave City), the "Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act," forbids local governments from extending new protections to any group not protected under state law. While the law studiously avoids any mention of gays or lesbians in its language in order to avoid constitutional hang-ups, with the wording duplicitously claiming the aim is to assist the business community by homogenizing nondiscrimination laws between cities, SB 202 is actually a surgical strike against local governments that would follow Fayetteville and Eureka Springs in expanding their laws to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity — the five words included in most LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances.
Fayetteville added LGBT protections to its civil rights ordinance last August, but the measure was repealed in December after a well-financed repeal effort. On Feb. 9, as SB 202 was cruising to passage, the Eureka Springs board of aldermen held an emergency meeting and quickly passed an LGBT protection ordinance there. A public vote on whether to keep that ordinance is scheduled for May 12.
In spite of Act 137, the Fayetteville repeal and the brewing holy war between the religious right and others over the Eureka ordinance, in coming weeks Little Rock City Director Kathy Webb plans to propose a city ordinance that would help protect LGBT citizens in Little Rock from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. While Webb is keeping the language of that proposed ordinance close to the vest at this writing (she said she has been looking at ordinances passed by Houston and San Antonio as models), the Arkansas Times believes any move in that direction would inevitably be a good thing for Little Rock, both practically and philosophically — both as a message to the rest of the nation that the city is welcoming to all, and as a symbol that we as a community are fundamentally opposed to those who would seek to legislate hate. Passing and keeping such ordinances in place may also eventually be the keystone of any court challenge to Act 137.
When it comes to making the case for an LGBT protection ordinance for Little Rock, it would be easy to drag out the soapbox. The better case, however — the more persuasive case, especially to those who may still be on the fence — is made by buttressing that argument by telling the stories of our neighbors who have suffered discrimination. Some of those stories appear below. By talking about the ugliness of the past, we can show why this ordinance is the best hope for the future.
This is why an LGBT protection ordinance is a good thing for Little Rock:
Stop reading this right now, get online and find the old, gray pictures of the 1957 crisis at Little Rock Central High School. Look past the flattops and crinoline skirts and see the people, who look just like you and me. Look at the scowling faces. The lips contorted. The brows pinched. Look at photographer Will Counts' famous picture of Hazel Bryan trailing steps behind 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford as Eckford left the school after being turned away, Bryan caught mid-shout, mid-taunt, mid-torment, teeth bared as if to bite the world.
Now ask yourself: Where does Little Rock want to be — where do I want to be — when the next generation looks back on discrimination against gay people?
Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, speaking while wearing his other hat as pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, said he believes the struggle for LGBT rights is comparable to the struggle for African-American rights that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws. "Now, as was the case then," Griffen said, "the people working hardest to maintain inequality claim they are not motivated by bigotry, but by religious views and concerns about public safety. Those claims are as hollow today as they were 50 years ago."
America, for all its historical faults, bends toward inclusivity. It may take a while, but we always get there eventually. The other thing that's true is this: The cold light of history is never kind to those who stand in the way of making us a more welcoming people, no matter what the motive.
While the haters can gloat over their victories for now, LGBT equality is coming, even to Arkansas, and not only from the courts. While support for same-sex marriage isn't everything, it's probably a good indicator of societal attitudes toward the acceptance of LGBT people in general. And among young Americans, the idea of gay marriage as a moral evil that should be fought fang and claw in the statehouse has been met with a deafening "meh" in recent years. A 2014 Gallup poll found that while 54 percent of people 30 to 49 years old believed that same-sex marriage should be legal, a full 78 percent of Americans in the 18-to-29 age bracket believed the same thing — a jump of 37 percentage points for that age bracket since Gallup started asking questions about same-sex marriage in 1996. Meanwhile, a poll conducted for the Human Rights Campaign released in July 2013 found that 61 percent of Arkansans under the age of 30 support marriage equality, while 63 percent of those under 30 said they would support legislation to keep a person from being fired because of that person's sexual orientation or gender identity. For young people born in the Bible Belt, many of them raised in Baptist churches and at the knee of those for whom homophobia was a default setting, those are huge numbers, not to mention a hint that we are likely headed toward a future where public displays of bigotry against LGBT folks will be met with as much disdain and disgust as public displays of bigotry against racial minorities are today.
While SB 202 was ostensibly pushed through to make Arkansas more attractive to business, the truth is that Arkansas is setting itself up as a place most major corporations wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole, no matter how low the Republican legislature pushes our tax rates in coming years. An HRC survey of the Fortune 500 found that 89 percent expressly prohibit employee discrimination based on sexual orientation, with 66 percent extending protections to transgender employees.
Meanwhile, Arkansas-based retail giant Walmart — which partnered with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce as far back as 2006, and which announced in August 2013 that it was extending health benefits to cover domestic partners of U.S. employees — took the rare step of issuing a statement publically criticizing Arkansas House Bill 1228, the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" by Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville), a so-called "conscience protection" bill, which would make it legal to discriminate based on one's personal religious bugaboos (up to and including, as noted in a letter in opposition to HB 1228 released by the Presbytery of Arkansas, allowing doctors or nurses to refuse to provide emergency medical care for gays and lesbians on religious grounds).
While HB 1228 wouldn't change how it does business, Walmart said in a statement, "We feel this legislation is also counter to our core, basic belief of respect for the individual and sends the wrong message about Arkansas, as well as the diverse environment which exists in the state."
The 9,000-pound gorilla of Bentonville has spoken. But is the legislature listening? Signs point to maybe. HB 1228 failed to get an endorsement from the Senate Judiciary Committee — one of the few legislative committees that include enough Democrats to block legislation from advancing — when it was presented on Feb. 25. But the bill is still kicking. With the addition of an amendment, it was sent back to the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 16.
City Director Webb said that she was thrilled to see the Walmart statement, which she called "huge" for the case against the legislature's efforts to discriminate against LGBT citizens.
"Every time Walmart makes a statement, it's very important to other businesses in Arkansas," she said. "It's important to the Chambers of Commerce, it's important to the average person who may not have given this much thought, or who may have been on the other side. When we see Walmart come out against it, maybe it makes that average person think."
Webb noted that Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, a Tea Party darling, vetoed a similar "conscience protection" bill in that state at the urging of business leaders, who said it would make Arizona appear unwelcoming to diverse corporations. While we'll never know how many companies have or will nix Arkansas because of our ongoing aversion to LGBT rights and bills like SB 202 and HB 1228, Webb has already seen the impact of Arkansas's unwelcoming climate herself.
"When I was in the legislature, UAMS was in my district," Webb said. "I got a call from a doctor there, and he was trying to recruit a talented researcher to come to Arkansas. Because we didn't offer partner benefits — and then the researcher found out some other things, that we didn't have protections — they weren't interested in coming. There are people, and not just members of the LGBT community, people who are allies, who want to live in a progressive, open, welcoming environment. They want to raise their kids in that kind of an environment. The overwhelming majority of the Fortune 500 companies have seen this. That's why they have these policies [protecting LGBT employees]. So these are anti-business measures from my point of view."
Multiply that researcher's reaction times a thousand, and you see why an Apple, a Google, a Honda or just about any other major corporation you can name is going to be very reluctant to ask members of their diverse and inclusive workforce to move to Arkansas in order to set up shop anytime soon. Little Rock, however, can make the state's loss our gain by rolling out the welcome mat via the passage of an LGBT protection ordinance that's virtually guaranteed to make national news.
"I think it's important to send a message about Little Rock," Webb said, "that Little Rock is an open and welcoming community and is ready to do business in the 21st century. We understand that the workforce out there is a diverse workforce, and we want to keep and attract the best and the brightest, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I think Arkansas is not doing such a good job with that."
After putting out a call for stories of LGBT discrimination on social media, I wound up talking to almost a dozen LGBT folks with stories that simply make you want to sit and shake your head. For some of those people, still stuck in situations where they might lose their jobs and livelihoods if they came out to their co-workers, or who are not out to their families because of religious beliefs, their tales can't be told in a public forum. There were, however, a few that can be shared, if anonymously.
One was from a medical doctor, who we'll call Doctor A, who works as a specialist in Little Rock. Dr. A said that in his 15-plus years in practice, he's had other physicians stop referring patients to him after learning he was gay. "They've subsequently told partners in practice that I can no longer see patients of theirs because of my 'personal issues,' which they don't believe in," he said. "Their personal beliefs became the deciding factor in whether I can care for patients or not."
Patients have refused to see him after learning that he was gay, he said. Others have tried to proselytize to him during their appointments in order to save him from hellfire. In another instance, he entered a shared operating theater, scrubbed up and ready to operate on a patient, only to find that someone had written "I AM GAY" in black marker on the front of the surgical gown that had been laid out for him. Because he had only a short window of time in which to operate, he had to go with it.
"The procedure was under a local anesthetic, so the patient was awake during that whole scenario," he said. "I had to control myself because I was about to operate on a patient. I couldn't let that overcome me. ... I think someone was trying to make me embarrassed, and I think someone was trying to make a point."
The state, Dr. A, could recruit "tremendous" physicians, but often loses out because of anti-LGBT legislation and attitudes. An LGBT protection ordinance, he said, might help send a positive message about Little Rock. "I think it would show that if you came to Little Rock, that within this city, there is something different. ... It's a step in the right direction. Any way we can move forward is a positive step."
Another story came from a woman we'll call K, who also works in the medical field. Before getting her current job, she had worked part time as a musician at a local church. After coming out as a lesbian to her family, K said, one of her family members, moved by their Christian views, immediately called her employer. "I think the best way to explain my family member's logic is: If you think you're saving someone from hell, it's OK for ethics to go out the window."
The next day, she was called in for a meeting with the pastor. "I went over and we met — him, another guy and me," she said. "They sort of did that thing like, 'Hey, everybody messes up, and it's OK if you're struggling right now' ... an intervention sort of thing. I said, 'Well, this isn't changing. This is me.' " After asking her a few more times whether her sexuality might change, K was fired. It says something about her that the first thing she thought of in that moment was the church.
"I said, 'You guys are going to be in a pickle for [Sunday]. Here's the numbers for two other people.' "
While an LGBT protection ordinance might not have helped in the issue with her previous employer — most protection ordinances include an exemption for houses of worship to avoid First Amendment issues — she said it's a good idea for the city. "I know that for myself and others in the gay community, it would be such a relief," she said, "Just the emotional benefit of seeing that some people are saying, 'We're on your side.' That would be great for the community."
Another person who shared her story is V, a woman who works as a manager for a small Central Arkansas company owned by a person she called "a staunch, right-wing fundamentalist Christian Republican." She said she can never be out at work, or even give a hint about her sexuality, because she knows she'll be fired. That forces her to edit every conversation, especially anything about her partner. She can never let her co-workers fully into her life, she said. That keeps her from forming the kind of close office relationships that most heterosexual people take for granted. "I cannot discuss my family life at work," she said. "I hear everyone else talking about theirs, but I know better than to open my mouth. If I do, I might not be fired for that, but it wouldn't be long in coming. It's very worrisome. It's very stressful."
V said that anti-LGBT bills like SB 202 send the same message to LGBT people that "sundown laws" sent to African Americans in the age of Jim Crow: We don't want you here. "I've worked since I was 14 years old," she said. "I pay my taxes. I vote. And they're going to use tax dollars that I paid in, that I earned and contributed, to pass laws to discriminate against me? ... It's not like you're going to make fewer of us. We're not going to quit coming. It's not going to stop happening. It's not a preventative measure. And if it's not that, it can be presumed that the only reason for this type of lawmaking is to punish us for being different."
On the other hand, V said, an LGBT protection ordinance for Little Rock would say that the city is more evolved in our thinking than the rest of the state. "It'll show we're more welcoming of anything that's going to better our state," she said. "It will promote our economy. It'll promote tourism. It'll promote the idea that everyone is welcome here. It's the difference between open arms and a slammed door in the face."
She has lived in other states, V said, but she always comes home to Arkansas. Lately though, she said, being gay in Arkansas hurts. "It's not that it just makes me angry or frustrated," she said. "It actually hurts that there are people out there who want to punish me, or hate me, and they don't even know who I am. I'm someone's mother, and I'm someone's daughter, and I'm someone's grandchild, and I'm someone's neighbor, and I'm someone's friend. I'm a person, too, and I have feelings just like everyone else."
Other than a mop of purple hair that makes him look like a character from a Japanese cartoon, Adrian Jones of Little Rock appears to be a pretty typical 17-year-old. He's got a pet hedgehog. He likes to read. He likes to bake. He's off to college next year, where he hopes to get a degree in early childhood education. But when he was 13, the same year he came out — first as gay and then as transgender (he was born biologically female) — Adrian Jones was bullied at school to the point that he tried to kill himself. He hasn't attended regular school since. When we spoke to him in February, he was preparing for the last test for his GED.
"My classmates were just angry and they lashed out," Adrian said. "Physically, verbally, emotionally, sexually. Just aggression. It's a lack of education and awareness. Obvious there are always going to be people who choose to be ignorant. But from what I can tell, it was just a lack of understanding."
While Arkansas is full of LGBT people whose childhoods include a horror show of rejection and bullying, Adrian's story is included here because of what he said about Arkansas: Although he loves the state where he was born, the climate for LGBT people here means he will likely leave the state after college and never come back.
"I want to have kids," Adrian said. "I want to have a family. But this isn't a place where I can see myself building a life. I'm torn between wanting to stay here and see things change and wanting that to happen and just wanting to get the hell out. I think I'm going to go to college in state and then I'm not sure what happens after that."
Adrian said that while he's not necessarily surprised that members of the Republican-controlled legislature put forth bills like SB 202 and HB 1228, it's hard to understand the mindset of people who would try to legalize discrimination. "You know they believe everything they're saying," he said. "These are the kind of people who are choosing to be ignorant — especially with HB 1228, which is insane. You can legally deny kids an education if they're gay and you don't want to teach them?"
Tim Jones, Adrian's father, agrees. He says that while it's always been easy to see changes to the law as abstractions that don't touch his day-to-day life, the anti-LGBT legislation this session feels like an intensely personal attack on someone he loves.
"Overall, I just see that kind of thing as a colossal exercise in selfishness," Tim said. "In essence, it's the lack of acceptance of other peoples' essential humanity based on who they are. It's making something that's not about me, about me. It's absolutely not about me. I don't think that my opinions or philosophies or dearly-held beliefs are sufficient in and of themselves to deny someone else's basic humanity."
Adrian said that if the Little Rock Board of Directors can pass protections for LGBT citizens, it would mean a lot to young Little Rock residents like him.
"It would mean there's hope, for one. It would be nice to have the reassurance that I can't be fired from my job for being queer, or kicked out of my home for being queer. ... I don't want my existence to be threatened for things I can't control."
Tim, meanwhile, called an LGBT protection ordinance "a fundamental goodness."
"It's us saying that in spite of all the ugliness in our society, people believe in something bigger than themselves."
Asked what he would say to members of the board who might be on the fence about LGBT rights, Adrian said he'd ask them to consider why they ran for their seat in the first place — what they want from that position, and whether they're really interested in helping the city and the community. "If so," he said, "they might want to try helping all of the city, and all of the community."
As I heard a friend say the other day: If heaven is going to be full of people like Sen. Bart Hester, Sen. Jason Rapert, Rep. Bob Ballinger and other Arkansas politicians who have used part of their time this legislative session to fight for legalized homophobia, please push the down button for me.
Meanwhile, a lot of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Arkansans I've met over the past 13 years as a reporter are the bravest people I've ever known, many of them waging a daily war against a world that tells them that in order to be "normal" they have to be just like everybody else.
No matter whether you're gay or straight, those people are worth defending. And if we want this to be a community where our children's children will want to grow up, we need those people to stay. Right now, I guarantee you that many of them are considering packing the U-Haul for places where people don't pass laws against who they are. An LGBT protection ordinance for Little Rock could keep at least some of them here.
Rita and Pam Jernigan are fixtures in the Little Rock LGBT community. Together for the past seven years, they're plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that recently saw Judge Kristine Baker strike down the state's same-sex marriage ban (a ruling that's on hold right now, pending appeal). Rita and Pam have a lesbian daughter, Cory, who lives in Washington State. Talking to them, you can hear how much Cory's life there speaks to their souls.
"She fled to Seattle," Rita said, "and whenever she sees any of this [Arkansas anti-gay legislation] come across the news media, she's shaking her head. She's like, 'I thought I loved Arkansas. Now, I'm thinking I can never return.' That's upsetting. Of course, in Seattle, it's free and liberal, and everyone is celebrated, not just tolerated."
Pam agrees. She said that she's glad Cory didn't have to live in a place where she must deal with institutionalized discrimination. "These young people who are just starting to make their way in the world want to live somewhere that they don't have to fight for years to get their rights. They just want to start. Life's hard enough when you're a young adult trying to establish your life. The last thing they want to do is stay here and fight and claw their way to the rights they should have had from the get-go."
Even though she's in the fight in Arkansas for the long haul, even Kathy Webb feels the tug of more tolerant places. She says that while she hopes they'll stay, she cannot blame young people who think there's no future for LGBT people in Arkansas. On a recent trip to Chicago, she was walking down the street when she saw an insurance agency billboard featuring two obviously gay men working on their house together. A little further along was a Starbucks with a rainbow banner inside. "I snapped a couple of pictures and sent them to a couple of my friends here, one who was fired from her job a year and a half ago," she said. "I told them, 'This is the street I'm on right now.' "
An LGBT protection ordinance for Little Rock, Webb believes, could stop at least some of the gay and progressive-minded brain drain to more tolerant states by sending a message that LGBT people are valued here, helping young people see the state as a home worth fighting for instead of a place to abandon. Making a stand in the city of Little Rock, Webb believes, could encourage LGBT people and their allies to rise up all over the state.
"We've got to encourage those people," she said. "Every time one person steps out, it can encourage another person to step out. Somebody might think: That's not doing very much. But there is a ripple effect. If that person gives somebody else the courage to do it, and then that person gives somebody else the courage to do it, it becomes huge."
Before we parted, I asked Webb the question that had been on my mind since I first heard she was putting forward an ordinance to help protect Little Rock's LGBT community: Had she ever been the victim of discrimination in employment or housing? It shocked me a bit when she teared up.
"Yes," she said, and her voice quavered. "It was a long time ago, and it was not here. But I lost a job and the place I lived. ... I remember it vividly. It felt terrible. It was 40 years ago, but I still remember it. Just. Like. This."
And that, friends, is why we must fight.
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