Columns » Max Brantley

The fight for equality

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The Clinton School has another dynamic lecture at noon Monday.

Hope native Chad Griffin will speak. He was a public relations executive in California after a stint as one of the youngest White House aides ever, joining Bill Clinton's staff at age 19.

Griffin went on to greater fame. He led the American Foundation for Equal Rights in a vigorous, but unsuccessful battle to defeat a proposition to ban same-sex marriage in California. It was Griffin who brought together a legal dream team of David Boies and Ted Olson to challenge the marriage ban, a case soon to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Griffin has also become president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country's leading organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights.

He'll be interviewed about his organization's work by state Rep. Kathy Webb, the influential Little Rock legislator who co-chaired the Joint Budget Committee in the last legislative session.

Griffin's words are welcome anywhere, but more in need here than in, say, New York, where same-sex marriage is legal and there's far less fear that sexual orientation can be a cause for discrimination in employment, housing or other public accommodation.

Arkansas has made strides, but it will be among the last with barriers to full equality. Fall they will. I was pleased to learn when speaking at American Legion Boys State last week that delegates included gay students. That's not really new. What's new is the number who are "openly gay" — a loaded phrase I hope will disappear soon from use. (Have you ever heard someone called "openly heterosexual"?) Not too many years ago, an honest declaration of self could have been dangerous at Boys State. It might still be perilous in some parts of Arkansas.

Marriage of people of the same sex is, of course, unconstitutional in Arkansas. It will take a court ruling to strike this down, just as it took the courts to end the Arkansas Constitution's protection of racial discrimination. (Voters symbolically removed the racial hate speech, barely, in 1992.)

Arkansas is not yet even at a point where the state's largest newspaper will recognize all legal marriages of Arkansans. A Rockefeller marrying in South Carolina, yes, that may be reported. A male lawyer and a distinguished male professor, both from Little Rock, marrying in New York? That's not fit for the marriage column.

But the tide turns. I've actually seen a Young Arkansas Republican make a tolerant remark about homosexuals on Twitter, though no Republican political candidate would dare do that just yet. Polls show the tide of prejudice will ebb as the older generation dies off. Mass media influence, courageous openness and bedrock fairness will in time produce an undeniable arc toward justice.

Money will help, as ever. Almost 50 major corporations joined the legal team that won the recent major legal victory over the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a law that allows discrimination against legally married couples. No Arkansas-based corporation was on that list, but Walmart has demonstrated patchy friendliness toward gay interest groups on occasion. Whether intended or not, Alice Walton's hiring of a gay man with a stay-at-home partner and child to head her Crystal Bridges Museum was a powerful statement in conservative Bentonville.

Next week, we have a chance to hear a man from Hope whose efforts will produce a landmark ruling — for better or worse — on minority rights. He's worth a listen.

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