Columns » Max Brantley

Miles to go on equal rights

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Little Rock City Director Kathy Webb with Mayor Mark Stodola image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Little Rock City Director Kathy Webb with Mayor Mark Stodola

A couple of disparate events prompt me to reflect on progress toward equality.

One is the local news that the Little Rock City Board, after much foot-dragging and thanks to the work of new Director Kathy Webb, could vote as early as next week on a civil rights ordinance giving a measure of specific legal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The ordinance includes employment protection only for those working for the city. The significant, if small, addition is that the ordinance requires a nondiscrimination agreement by companies that wish to do business with the city.

The ordinance has no enforcement mechanism. Realistically, companies will be able to discriminate with only a limited potential for adverse consequences. But that potential is a step forward.

There is no express protection for sexual minorities in state or federal law, though the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has determined that discrimination against a transgender person amounts to prohibited sexual discrimination. Federal employees have some protections on orientation thanks to executive orders. But that's about it.

The key element of this ordinance is the expansion beyond government employees. The legislature passed a law aimed at preventing any sort of local ordinances with civil rights protection beyond local government employees. Little Rock seems poised to provide more before that state law takes effect in late July, as Eureka Springs has already done. Some other cities and counties might join them.

The Arkansas legislature and governor made clear their opposition to civil rights for gays. (Don't be misled by the compromise "religious freedom" bill. It is still a vehicle for discrimination.) But concrete statements to the contrary, particularly from the state's largest city, matter.

It was only 13 years ago that a brave Arkansas Supreme Court said that sodomy was not a crime. It was 2000 when Vermont became the first state to give marital rights to same-sex couples. Now three dozen states are in that number with a chance the U.S. Supreme Court will finish the job in June, no matter how much Arkansas objects.

Discrimination continues. Even in the most progressive states, it remains wise to check surroundings before venturing openly some places as an identifiable minority — sexual, racial or religious. But a unanimous Little Rock City Board could do wonders for our enduring reputation as a city known for hate nearly 60 years ago.

That disparate event? That would be Hillary Rodham Clinton's announcement as a presidential candidate.

Put aside your Clinton fatigue, Whitewater, Benghazi, Clinton dynastic questions and the rest. The United States has never had a woman president. There have been dozens worldwide. That's American exceptionalism for you.

We may not have a woman president after 2016 either. But odds are strong that we'll at least have our first major party female nominee.

And yet. The U.S. doesn't have an Equal Rights Amendment. The pay gap only slowly narrows. In Arkansas, a woman employed full time makes 77 cents for every $1 a man makes. The executive offices and boardrooms of Arkansas remain predominantly male. But there have been advances.

It was around 1976 when Hillary Clinton was hired at the Rose Law Firm. She was the first woman hired as an associate by one of the Big Three Little Rock law firms. The Arkansas state judiciary included a grand total of one woman at that time.

Today, the Arkansas Supreme Court numbers four women among its seven. We've come far enough as a state that it's not sexist to say you regret the election of some of them.

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