Unity needed for equality
in the Natural State
By Jon Cox
TFW Contributing Writer
Whenever I make new gay friends and tell them I live in Arkansas, I usually receive some patronizing words of good luck or of how difficult it must be to live and be an activist in such a backward state.
I find this to pretty much sum up the general state of Gay Arkansas: Most people don’t seem to pay us much attention until some awful event occurs and national scorn can reign down upon the offender. The most recent incident that comes to mind is Clint McCance, the school board president in south Arkansas who posted on his Facebook that the gay students in his district should kill themselves.
From an activist perspective, this caused Arkansas to go from a non-issue to center attention very quickly. Anderson Cooper ran a few stories. The Human Rights Campaign ran ads in Arkansas newspapers. The gay blogosphere was on fire with the issue.
And, while it was nice to receive this attention, I couldn’t help but be a bit annoyed, since this is always the case. Something bad happens, causing the country to turn and say “Oh my god! Poor Arkansans!”
People don’t think about Gay Arkansas otherwise because it’s never on their mind. And why should they? We aren’t a big state. We don’t have the institutionalized religion of Utah or the perpetual last-place status of Mississippi. We are lost somewhere down in the bottom 20 percent.
Of course, I find this reflects the general “state of the gay” in Arkansas. We aren’t very well organized. There are a few good pockets of gay life — Fayetteville, Eureka Springs and Conway come to mind — but on a statewide level there’s a general air of disorganization, representative of the oppressive community of most of the state. For this reason, organizing can be a bit difficult. The issues that galvanize people — most notably marriage — are not the issues that Arkansas needs to be working on.
Arkansas is one of the more than 20 states where it’s perfectly legal to fire or refuse to hire someone due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s legal for a landlord to refuse to rent to a same-sex couple.
And of course, there’s Act One, with draconian wording to ban all unmarried couples from adopting so as to specifically target same-sex couples. Act One was recently struck down in court, but how many of you knew this? There is no network to get this information out.
And the issue that galvanizes people, the issue that is the single most visible nationwide, is the one that has the least use in Arkansas right now. What happens if we suddenly have same-sex marriage in Arkansas? Well, a bunch of couples can marry. But here’s what doesn’t happen: the discrimination in areas like employment and housing is allowed to continue. We focus on the rights of a smaller group of ourselves, instead of focusing on something that helps everyone: single, taken, young and old.
Our chances of getting anything through the legislature is slim right now. The state is too conservative still. But, if you look at the way the two campaigns were run in 2008 — one to support and one to oppose Act One — we are simply too disorganized to effect major change yet. Rather than individually focusing our energy on different pieces of legislation, we must first direct inwards. Only by coming together and building a strong community can we band together and achieve the rights we are so frequently denied.