Jennifer Chilcoat was 25 and fresh out of graduate school in Tennessee when she arrived in Little Rock to work at the Central Arkansas Library System. Thanks to a national publication called Lesbian Connection, she had a couple of names of women who would help her settle in a city where otherwise she was a stranger. The two women let her stay a couple of nights at their home on Louisiana Street while she searched for an apartment.
It was 1990, and she was barely out herself. But it wasn't long before she got involved with what was a relatively new organization, the Arkansas Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "I felt I had to get my gumption up," Chilcoat said.
So she worked with high school and college students — youth who weren't much younger than she was — in a support group called PALS (People of Alternative Life Styles), for kids struggling with their sexuality or the impact of their sexuality. She also deejayed the KABF-FM, 88.3, show "Queer Frontier" and worked on Triangle Rising, the task force newsletter. The group also operated a crisis line seven days a week, duties rotating between members, and sponsored a gay prom at the Woman's City Club and other places for people of all ages every year. She guessed the core of the group was around 60 people.
The work of the task force, as Chilcoat remembers it, was more inwardly focused on supporting the community, helping people know they were not alone, rather than actively campaigning for gay rights, though they participated in Martin Luther King Jr. Day "marades" and members went to Washington, D.C., for the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. "We had a banner," Chilcoat said. "It had a pink triangle on it. It was a legit banner, man!" she said, laughing.
Chilcoat remembers those days fondly. "It was so much fun. We worked so hard. We loved each other." It helped, she said, that her co-workers at the library, where she is now deputy director, were supportive. Had she not moved to Little Rock but stayed at home in Tennessee, among people who knew her and to whom she did not want to come out, "I don't know what my trajectory would have been."
Not that it was easy in Little Rock. After a poetry reading at Vino's, Chilcoat recalls, she was in her car talking with her window rolled down to a transgender woman when a group of teenaged boys began pelting the car and the woman with hunks of concrete. One chunk sailed through the rear window of Chilcoat's car and sprayed glass all over her back seat. The woman was hit but not hurt, Chilcoat recalled.
The kids in PALS were different — some out, some thrown out by their families, some still closeted. Chilcoat particularly remembers three or four kids in the PALS meetings who came all the way from Carlisle, though she could not remember how they knew about the organization, and another "big red-headed pencil, about 6 feet tall, skin and bones, a mouth full of braces and he was hilarious." They had different personalities, but "they all got along."
The volunteer organization, as many do, lost steam after around 10 years, toward the end of the 1990s. "This sounds very odd," Chilcoat said, but, "my recollection was that the death knell was the fact that we received a grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation" to transition from an all-volunteer group to paid staff. "It was a transition [the task force] wasn't ready to make."
The past few years have brought enormous change to the gay community, with the Supreme Court's ruling that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right and with laws on the books in many states even before the high court's ruling granting the right. The years have brought changes in Chilcoat's life: She and her wife (they tied the knot last weekend at a pizza restaurant with family and friends) have a 10-year-old son, and their life is like "Ward and June Cleaver's," she laughed.
But, she said, "if I had made a prediction, I would have predicted that civil rights protections [would have been enacted] before the right to marry." Arkansas still allows businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, reinforced by the last General Assembly with its Religious Freedom Protection Act.
Religion was used in the civil rights era as an excuse to discriminate against people based on their skin color. Though there is still much racism evident today, race relations and rights are much improved since the 1950s. "That puts me at ease that it's going to work out," Chilcoat said of the acceptance of same-sex marriage. She understands that there "are a lot of people who are not ready to make a change in their outlook. They feel threatened and they're pushing back. ... This is just something people have to go through. I would be stupid to think that a Supreme Court decision would make everything fine."
Recently, Chilcoat and her son and other Cub Scouts took a trip to a horse farm in Mayflower. As it turned out, the owner was one of the kids she'd worked with in PALS so long ago. "He hadn't changed a bit — funny and outgoing with big round blue eyes," she said. He was happy, successful, and a barrel racer in his free time.
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