Columns » Jay Barth

A game-changing week for Arkansas

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AT THE COURTHOUSE: Shon DeArmon (holding the flag) puts his arm around his partner James Porter, while they wait in the line at the Pulaski County Courthouse to get a marriage license image
  • Brian Chilson
  • AT THE COURTHOUSE: Shon DeArmon (holding the flag) puts his arm around his partner James Porter, while they wait in the line at the Pulaski County Courthouse to get a marriage license.

Starting with Circuit Judge Chris Piazza's initial ruling at 4:51 p.m. on Friday, May 9, and ending with the state Supreme Court's succinct stay of his ruling at 4:30 p.m. the following Friday, Arkansas experienced marriage equality. While lasting just minutes short of one week, Arkansas's unexpectedly becoming the first state in the South in which same-sex marriages took place has the promise to reshape Arkansas for years to come and in ways that go beyond LGBT rights.

Since the June 2013 Windsor decision in the U.S. Supreme Court, it's been clear that marriage equality would eventually come to Arkansas. However, most assumed, even if there were a positive court ruling along the way, that Arkansas's state constitutionally mandated practice of denying marriage to some would last until the Supreme Court issues its culminating decision making marriage equality the law of the land. Instead, Judge Piazza's refusal to stay his initial decision — both at the time of the ruling and again later in the week — and the good work of a handful of county clerks meant that over 500 same-sex couples were able to marry, producing a series of images that elicited synchronous grins and tears in those who saw them.

Particularly striking was that many of those who showed up at courthouses to publicly commit to one another were folks who had not been involved directly in any LGBT activism before that moment. They evidenced the many forms that Arkansas's same-sex couples take: from the septuagenarian lesbian couple together for decades to the couple who are work colleagues in a rural fire department to the urban gay men with an adorable and adoring child. Through taking this step, they all became permanent agents of social change, for we know that when neighbors have ongoing contact with gay couples they begin to shift their views on LGBT rights.

Just as moving as the images of this variety of Arkansas couples were the comments of young Arkansans and Arkansas natives now living outside the state voicing their sudden sense that they could indeed have a future in Arkansas. The comments came all week: in conversations at coffee shops, in Facebook posts, and second-hand in conversations with parents trying to not become too excited that their relocated kids might someday come home to Arkansas. While some of these voices were LGBT, just as many were straight persons who, despite their love of Arkansas, have had difficulty seeing themselves living in a place that is on the wrong side of the civil rights issue of their time and were deeply proud that their home state was suddenly on the right side of history.

For too long, Arkansas has drained creative energy when young people leave the state. And, as urban studies scholar Richard Florida has convincingly argued, large numbers of those who "engage in creative problem-solving" are the direct and indirect keys to a vibrant 21st century economy. (The fact that Arkansas's week of marriage overlapped with the Little Rock Film Festival — tangible evidence of the quality of life the work of this "creative class" brings to a place — made this point strikingly.) The University of Arkansas System's announcement, following years of advocacy efforts, that it would recognize same-sex marriages for purposes of providing benefits to its workers was perhaps the most emphatic moment of the week in the positive impact of the ruling in promoting a "creative class" presence in Arkansas. Over recent years, candidates for faculty positions have turned down positions on campuses in the system and others have left the state because of the preexisting ban on domestic partner benefits. This policy shift changes the game in recruiting and retaining those faculty, exemplars of the creative spirit that Florida identifies as being so vital.

As Arkansas Economic Development Commission Director Grant Tennille presciently put it well last year in voicing his personal support for marriage equality: "I believe that the most vibrant economies in the world are the ones that are the most free and the most equal. I think Arkansas has a real opportunity here to lead the South." Last week, initiated by Judge Piazza, Arkansas engaged in just that sort of leadership. Though probably not as jerky as the events of the momentous May week just finished, there will be more twists and turns to the story of same-sex marriage in Arkansas in the months ahead. But, the week just completed cannot be undone and it bodes well for our future.

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