story by Ryan Saylor
A survey by a prominent gay rights group asserts that large numbers of gays and lesbians in Arkansas report having been the victims of discrimination and harassment. The group is now pushing for legal protects for the LGBT community in the state with support from one prominent Democrat, but a Republican member of the Arkansas legislature is saying not so fast.
In the survey released Monday (July 28) by Human Rights Campaign — the largest such survey conducted of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi, trans-gendered) individuals in Arkansas' history, the group said — a fourth of all respondents reported employment discrimination, while another 37% described harassment in the workplace.
The report from HRC notes that 38% of LGBT households earning less than $45,000 annually have experienced workplace harassment, while 43% of respondents said they had been harassed at "public establishments." The reported said 45% of those surveyed experienced harassment of some sort at school, with 44% saying that harassment was most common in high school. A full third of LGBT students in rural areas reported being harassed on a weekly basis at their schools.
"To address these disparities, earlier this year, HRC launched Project One America," a press release from HRC said. "With the goal of improving the lived experience of LGBT people, Project One America will work to change hearts and minds, advance enduring legal protections, and build more inclusive institutions for LGBT people from the church pew to the workplace."
As part of its work in the state, HRC on Monday named Kendra Johnson as state director for HRC Arkansas, where Project One America Director Brad Clark said she would work with Arkansas' elected officials to affect change in the state's hearts and minds and laws.
“Kendra has the vision to create a strong Arkansas community by working with various local leaders across the state,” Clark said. “She has the experience to bring LGBT Arkansans the respect and dignity they deserve.”
Jerry Cox, executive director of the Arkansas Family Council, said even though the survey from HRC may show that individuals feel as though they've been discriminated against, he said to his knowledge there has not been a single reported case of an individual being discriminated against "or thrown out of a restaurant because they were go."
"It's a solution in search of a problem," he added.
Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said the results of the survey show that Arkansas should advance some sort of legal protections for the LGBT community though he doubts such legislation will occur before his time in the legislature is up at the end of 2016.
"I do think we need to take some action. However, I don't think any legislation would stand a chance in the current (Republican-controlled) legislature," he said. "I think nationally, we clearly see opinion trending toward acceptance and equality. I think that's just the arch of the universe with past struggles. We're moving in that direction. Arkansas has lagged, but even here I see us moving in that direction (toward acceptance)."
But Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, said passage of a law targeted at prevention of discrimination against gays and lesbians would create "special protections" that were unnecessary.
"I guess that would be my question, is what special protection do they need? There are already anti-discrimination laws that are available. I don't see where they would see that they would need special protections."
But Leding pointed to laws he said were specifically designed to discriminate against gays and lesbians as part of the reason why protections were needed.
"Obviously, I'm a pretty big proponent of doing away with the 2004 constitutional ban on marriage equality," he said. "The law forbidding unmarried couples from adopting, even though it didn't name gay couples, that's who they were targeting. And that's been repealed."
Arkansas' ban on gay marriage was ruled unconstitutional of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, though it is not binding pending an appeal of the ruling. But the decision to stay Piazza's ruling did not come before hundreds of gays and lesbians married at courthouses across the state.
Where Leding said action needs to take place is locally, where city and county ordinances could be passed that would hopefully spur representatives of those communities in the legislature to act on a statewide level.
Leding's own city of Fayetteville is considering an ordinance that would protect LGBT citizens in the community from discrimination, according to a report from the Arkansas Times. Leding said even without the bill having passed, the conversation it has sparked within the Fayetteville community is a positive step forward for LGBT citizens in the city and in Arkansas.
"It has sparked some debate here in the community," he said. "I believe the mayor has expressed support. I know members of the council have. I've heard some mixed comments, too. Some in the business community think it is necessary. Some don't. But I'm glad the community is having the conversation, regardless of whether it passes or not. I think something could be done on a statewide level, certainly after I'm gone. But what will help drive that change more quickly is local communities passing ordinances similar to what's under consideration here in Fayetteville. That helps move things up the ladder."
But for all the talk of equal rights for gays and lesbians, Meeks said being a member of the LGBT community is a choice and therefore should not be afforded the same anti-discrimination protections as other groups, such as African-Americans.
"Laws should apply equally and fairly to everyone. This is why I would disagree. There are current protections in place, like for race. We can't decide our race or nationality. Those are things we have no choice over. These other things, people have a choice as far as their sexual preferences, so forth. So if we keep making these special exemptions or rules for these groups, where does it end?"