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One of these days, LGBT people will be fully equal and accepted, even in Arkansas.
Don't ever think we won't get there. This nation, for all our faults and dalliances with hate, is a country that eventually listens to the better angels of her nature, usually sooner than you'd think. Bigotry is a stubborn knot, especially when it is bound up with the thread of religion, as hatred of gay people often is. But time, love, understanding and the passing of those generations who've never known anything else can see even the most stubborn knot untied.
Someday, people will want to know the history of how this state came so far from where we once were. When that day comes, there will be people to thank. One of those hundreds is Ted Holder.
Holder, 62, is a lawyer who works for the Arkansas Securities Department. Thin and thoughtful, a dry wit, he lives with his husband, Joe van den Heuvel, in Little Rock's Quapaw Quarter, mostly retired from life as an advocate for the cause of LGBT rights. As a younger man, Holder was one of the founders of the Arkansas Gay and Lesbian Task Force, serving on the board and often as the group's president until he stepped down in the mid-1990s. The Task Force struggled to be heard at times, but left an indelible footprint on the path to full equality for gay people in Arkansas. The double focus of the Task Force, Holder said, was to work for a more cohesive gay community all over the state while furthering the cause of acceptance by winning hearts and minds in the mainstream world wherever they could.
Born in West Memphis in 1953, Holder said he came to the realization that something was different about him early. "I remember being attracted to guys before I understood what that meant," he said. "I remember people talking about girls, and I just didn't get it. I remember one time, somebody said, 'Look at that!" It was a girl on a bicycle. I thought they were talking about the bicycle. Looking back on it, I really did understand. But you didn't have a role model. The only things you ever heard about gay people back then were always so negative. It was general. If you ever saw any movies or anything about gay people, there was always something wrong with them."
After graduating from high school in 1971, Holder went on to Hendrix College in Conway, where he struggled with his sexuality. "I tried to change it," he said. "I thought it was a phase that I would grow out of. I tried dating girls, even through college. That didn't work out very well."
After graduating from Hendrix, Holder went on to law school in Little Rock. Soon after graduating with his J.D., Holder had a decision to make about the direction his life would take. Like a good lawyer, he started by doing careful research.
"I started researching whether I should go to a psychiatrist or if I should go to a gay bar, if I could find one," he said. "As it happened, a friend of mine invited me to some parties. ... There was a gay couple there. That was the first one that I knew of that I had met. At the time, I was also reading all kinds of stuff. So that was pretty good, to have met them. That was a way into the gay community. It was not open here, at all. I was around 30 then, so that would have been like '82 or '83, just as AIDS was busting out. I remember, I told them, 'So y'all are gay?' and they said, 'Yeah. Are you?' I was like, 'Can I talk to you about this another time?' It was weird, but it didn't take long. As one of them said: 'The splinters have been flying ever since.' I busted out of that closet."
At the time, Holder was working at the attorney general's office. After accepting that he was gay, he began attending a weekly support group for gays run by Little Rock psychotherapist Ralph Hyman. "It was [about] how to be OK, and get on with life," Holder said. "How to work through problems. It was pretty good. It was group therapy. It was really not therapy, because it was all volunteer. People just showed up and nobody paid for anything. He wasn't doing therapy, let's be clear about that. But it was good support, both because there's a bunch of you and because Ralph was good about getting people through these sort of things."
While most people in his life accepted that he was gay (it took his mother two years to "get right," he said), coming out changed his relationships, Holder said, including some changes he still regrets. "I feel bad about it now, but I just cut off a lot of people," he said. "I'm a social animal. I had been really involved in the Grande Maumelle Sailing Club. I had a lot of friends there, a lot of lawyers. I just withdrew from everybody, because I didn't want to be rejected. As life's gone on, a lot of those people I have never taken back up. It's not their fault, and it wasn't fair to them. I didn't trust them, and I wish I had."
Little Rock is a small city, and the gay community of Little Rock has always been a small town within that city. Holder said his interactions with gay friends at the long-standing gay-friendly club Discovery versus how they treated him in everyday life was one of the reasons he decided to help found the Arkansas Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
"You'd see people there, and then you'd see them on the street the next week," he said. "They'd act like they didn't know you. They're afraid someone would figure out that they're gay. ... I just felt that it was not right that people could see you in a bar or anywhere and then not want to talk to you later on because somebody might figure out they're gay. I thought, this is not right. This has got to change."
With several friends, including Hyman and Lori Hanson, a transplant to Arkansas who had served on the board of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Holder helped found the Arkansas Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1984. They immediately ran headlong into a problem: How do you run an advocacy group for gay and lesbian people when most of the people in the group are wholly or partially in the closet?
"We said, 'Let's do a letterhead,' " he remembered. "Nobody would put their name on the damn letterhead! Nobody wanted to do that. It was a problem."
Eventually, those involved became more comfortable doing the hard work of being open, and the group found its voice, including organizing and staging a counter-protest when a venomously homophobic religious group made plans to protest outside Little Rock's Immanuel Baptist Church, where Bill Clinton was a member. In addition, the Task Force created an anonymous hotline, staffed by volunteers every evening, for those questioning their sexuality. They started a radio show on Little Rock's KABF-FM, 88.3, called "Queer Frontier," launched Task Force chapters all over the state, and started a support group for LGBT youth. On the social front, they held poetry readings, get-togethers, and "prom of your dreams" events for those who weren't able to attend high school dances with the partner of their choice. The group's monthly newsletter, "Triangle Rising," was one of the first LGBT-centric media outlets in the state, collecting and reporting news of gay interest from across Arkansas.
"We never had a parade," he said. "I wish we had, but we never had one. People were still not to the point where they could do that."
One of Holder's proudest moments with the Task Force was when the group was part of a contingent of gay and lesbian Arkansans who traveled to the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights in April 1993. A headcount found 230 Arkansans among the crowd, which was estimated to be in the neighborhood of 700,000. (While 230 souls might sound like nothing to write home about, Holder notes there were only eight people in attendance from Mississippi.)
While fostering community was important, Holder said that one of his goals for the Task Force was to avoid the "inward-directed" mindset that he said some LGBT advocacy groups can fall victim to. He knew that in order to better the lot of LGBT people, the group had to show the straight world that gays and lesbians are normal people with normal lives; people who, as Holder put it, just want a home and someone to come home to.
"I've always wanted to, somehow, affect the greater populace," he said. "It was really difficult when people can't come out. I got to where I was OK. People could interview me. People could talk to me. They had me on television several times about this, that or the other. But all these other people, not so much."
Over time, the worm started to turn, especially after national media outlets started calling the group for comment on gay life in Bill Clinton's Arkansas during Clinton's first run for president. After Clinton was elected, Holder said they asked for and received a sit-down with Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. Holder said Tucker told them that, while he couldn't expend his limited political capital advocating for gay causes like a repeal of the state sodomy law, he wouldn't stand in the way of those goals either, and wouldn't veto a repeal if it came to his desk. One of the first politicians to ask for the group's endorsement, Holder recalled, was a young Vic Snyder.
"We were having a board meeting, and this guy comes in — young guy, nice looking," Holder said. "We didn't know who the hell this was. I was in the bathroom, and I came out, and they said: 'This guy is running for state Senate and wants us to endorse him.' I said, 'Somebody cares what we think? This is amazing! Well, hell yeah, we'll endorse him!' "
Fighting the good fight, while rewarding, is a lot of work. Between his day job and work with the task force, Holder was soon seeing more of his work and advocacy colleagues some days than he did his husband, Joe, who he's been in a committed relationship with since 1991 (they married in San Francisco in 2008). In 1994, Holder made the decision to resign from the board of the task force.
Three or four years later, he said, he got a mailer that caused him to send in his formal resignation from the group. "We got some stuff in the mail and [the task force was] going to have a conference," he said. "One of the things on there was, 'Sex Toys and How to Use Them.' I thought, 'Yeah, that's what we all need. Every one of those things goes to somebody, and goes to [anti-gay Arkansas Family Council leader] Jerry Cox somehow.' I just sent in a resignation letter. I said, 'Don't send me anything else, because I didn't want to be associated with that.' Holder said the Arkansas Gay and Lesbian Task Force folded a few years after that.
Though he's officially retired from advocacy work, Holder still keeps track of the advancement of gay rights in the state. While he marvels that he had enough energy to keep all those plates in the air during the 1980s and '90s, it led him to a long view of the struggle. These days, he said, he's open with anybody and everybody. Though he says he's been disappointed in some of the anti-gay legislation issuing from the state Capitol of late — authored by one-agenda legislators with talking points in their pockets, a far cry from the quietly progressive legislators of old — he says the outpouring of pushback to that legislation proves how far we've come.
"When all that happened with [House Bill 1228, the 'religious freedom' bill that many called a license to discriminate against LGBT people], did you see how many people came to the Capitol? Thousands of people. They're able to get people to do that now." As a lawyer, Holder said, he was similarly proud of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza for his ruling striking down the state's ban on gay marriage in May 2014.
Though he wasn't born in Little Rock, Holder said he's always been impressed by the city's acceptance of those who are different. It has always been a pretty nice place, Holder said. It's even nicer now.
"One thing that I've always found interesting about [Little Rock], not being from here, is that the people who live here don't realize how progressive and laid back Little Rock was, and still is," he said. "I love it. They're going to bury me here. I'm not leaving."
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