by Max Brantley
Two brave lawmakers; Grant Tennille, the head of the state’s economic development agency, and the national director of the Human Rights Campaign called for Arkansas to lead the South in passing laws to guarantee full rights for the state’s gay, lesbian, transgender and queer community, including the right to marry.
Tennille said it was imperative that the state follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s lead in striking down laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, which in Arkansas would require a constitutional amendment.
Arkansas has a "tortured history" when it comes to the U.S. Constitution's declaration of freedom, "but we have an opportunity to move first and be a leader in the country, and especially the South, to say all our citizens will be treated equally under the law," Tennille said.
Tennille started his speech with a reference to British codebreaker Alan Turing, who committed suicide after pleading guilty to an English law prohibiting sodomy. He said Arkansas, to both attract jobs and keep the state's intellectual capital from leaving, must create an atmosphere of equality. "It's an incredibly simple concept," Tennille said. Arkansas needs to be a place where all are welcome."
Tennille added that he didn't think he'd change Gov. Mike Beebe's mind on his opposition to marriage equality. Beebe at least allows Tennille to speak freely. Indeed, Beebe said later that Tennille was entitled to his opinion but his belief that marriage should only apply to a man and woman hadn't changed.
Rep. Deborah Ferguson, D-West Memphis, who introduced the speakers, said it was time to let those in the LGBT community know "that we stand with them as allies," and Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said he would urge "all Arkansans to go out and change hearts and minds." UALR student Ty Stacey talked about coming out to her family at age 18 and how difficult it was but that she was helped by role models like former state Rep. Kathy Webb of Little Rock, the only open gay lawmaker to serve in the legislature. Other speakers were James Rector, head of the Northwest Arkansas Center for Equality, which has worked with students to fight bullying, and Ruth Shepherd, director of Just Communities of Arkansas, who pledged JCA's support in efforts to bring about change.
He got a rousing reception in the noon hour during a Q&A with former state Rep. Kathy Webb at the Clinton School. The questions he fielded included several from gay Arkansans with marriage plans, all also cheered. While happy about the Supreme Court decisions, he said organizing work, political campaigns and court cases will be necessary to move equality forward. Invaluable, he said, were those who give a human face to the issue. And he urged consideration of the religious dimension of equality, given the commandment to love neighbors.
Across town, at the putatively Christian Family Council, a leader in efforts to discriminate against gay people under the law, leader Jerry Cox said he was sure most Arkansans still favored discriminatory legislation.
Here's the poll summary, in a release from the Human Rights Campaign:
... The bipartisan poll found that 61 percent of Arkansans under age 30 support marriage equality, and 63 support legislation that would ensure no one could be fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The Court’s historic rulings point to the emergence of two Americas,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “In one America, LGBT people are achieving more equality under the law than ever before. In the other America — places like Arkansas — LGBT people are still struggling to gain equal protections and benefits. But we can draw hope from these new poll numbers — Arkansans by and large reject discrimination against their friends and loved ones; and the younger generation is fully on-board with marriage."
The poll was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Target Point Consulting from June 26-30, 2013.
· 82 percent of people mistakenly believe federal law protects LGBT people from employment discrimination.
· 90 percent of people of faith in Arkansas agree that the Golden Rule — treating others as we ourselves would wish to be treated — extends to LGBT people.
· Nearly 70 percent of Arkansans support anti-bullying laws against LGBT youth.
· 64 percent of Arkansans believe it does more harm than good when a religious leader condemns LGBT people.
The polling memo is available online and can be accessed here.
“We have a sense of both optimism and urgency," added Griffin. “But we must translate our hope for the future into action. Every person in Arkansas deserves to live in communities where they feel safe and respected. We have much work ahead of us to achieve that goal here in Arkansas, but we are up to the task.”
The link to fuller poll results shows overall opposition to marriage equality continues in Arkansas. But the number was 55-38, compared with the 75 percent that approved the marriage ban in 2004. But 61 percent of those younger than 30 support marriage equality. Time will march on. Opposition is, literally, dying out.
More immediately encouraging is the finding that more than 60 percent support state or federal legislation to bar job discrimination on account of sexual orientation. A much larger percentage erroneously thinks this is already the case. Our Republican congressional delegation and Republican legislative majority understand the current circumstances well. They've voted repeatedly in favor of continuation of legal discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation.