Advocates in Arkansas fought back several anti-trans bills — and why that matters

by Andrea Zekis, NCTE

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy speaks while (from left) Kendra Johnson with HRC, Rev. Gwen Fry with ARTEC and Rita Sklar with ACLU of Arkansas look on — BRIAN CHILSON, Arkansas Times.

While battles against transgender discrimination in North Carolina and Texas continue in both intensity and visibility, you may have missed an equally important battle in Arkansas that was won.

At the start of May, Arkansas lawmakers gavelled to close a legislative session where advocates in Arkansas faced a slate of anti-transgender bills the likes of which the Natural State had never seen. The bills were filed over the span of two days in March. Among them was a proposal to eliminate the ability of transgender people to change their birth certificates (HB1894), an attempt to criminalize transgender people using a public restroom (HB1986), and a bill which would have given medical providers the right to discriminate against transgender, people based on their religious views (HB1628).

Credit: Associated Press, via Twitter.

Yet when the Arkansas state legislature recessed in early April, none among these bills became law. In a year, where the National Center for Transgender Equality has identified and tracked seen more than 50 anti-trans bills in 21 states, and a reversal of position from the NCAA and NBA in North Carolina, Arkansas was a major battleground to hold the line against anti-trans bills. Halting these bills couldn’t have happened without a coalition of Arkansas-based equality organizations — including our partners at the Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition (ArTEC) — playing key roles and working together.

One of my roles at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) is to provide support to the transgender community in states facing anti-transgender legislation; thus putting the trainings, resources and expertise of NCTE to work for them. At the request of ArTEC, I had the opportunity to spend 24 days in Little Rock working alongside a strong group of transgender advocates, activists and allies.

Not only were we able to mobilize scores of participants for rallies, press conferences and for each hearing, more than 30 Arkansans received storytelling and spokesperson training. NCTE worked with its Arkansas coalition partners on messaging and lifting up the narratives of transgender people either before the lawmakers or before the press. Even down to the final committee hearing, transgender Arkansans and their allies made their presences felt in case any bill appeared on the agenda.

Our collective work beating back these discriminatory bills in Arkansas serves as an example of the power of transgender leaders and organizations when they have active roles in the state coalitions. National organizations like NCTE can provide capacity and support for local and state-level transgender communities to face those challenges.

Stories make a difference.

I had the opportunity to witness the testimonies of Rae Nelson and Zachary Miller on House Bill 1894, which would have impacted the ability of transgender people to change their birth certificates. Both Rae and Zach are heavily active in social justice work in Central Arkansas, and openly identify as transgender people of color, veterans and native Arkansans. They were able to share experiences facing those who live at the intersection of race and gender to the bill’s potential impacts and build connections with more conservative lawmakers through their service and connection to the state in very powerful and personal ways. The leadership of advocates, such as Rae and Zach, shined throughout the month’s activities. Simultaneously, coalition efforts highlighted the greater need to lift up the lives of transgender people of color — particularly trans women of color — for the power of their experiences with violence, whether in testimony, in town halls or in demonstration on the Capitol steps. The Arkansas effort showed the possibilities that can come when racial and transgender justice are central when facing hostile legislation.

The legacy of North Carolina loomed large in Arkansas, as it did in other states.

After two anti-LGBT bills in 2015 became law in Arkansas, one of which included a local civil rights pre-emption law similar to part of North Carolina’s HB 142, there were deep concerns that Arkansas could pass a bathroom ban in 2017 on par with North Carolina. Because North Carolina’s HB 2 cost their state’s economy billions of dollars in lost revenue, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson spoke out early in the legislation session that any bathroom legislation would be unnecessary. The business community, especially the state’s convention and tourism industries, came out against any anti-transgender bathroom bans as harmful for the state’s reputation and bottom line.

Arkansas State Rep. Mickey Gates (R — 22) compared transgender Arkansans changing their birth certificates to slavery, during the proceedings.

Still Arkansas faced two bathroom bans during the legislative session: Senate Bill 774, which was written in the model of North Carolina’s HB 2, and House Bill 1986 which expanded the definition of indecent exposure to target transgender people seeking to use the restroom. During the 2017 session, HB 1986 was the only anti-transgender specific bill to leave its originating committee. The coalition of equality organizations working in Arkansas — which included Human Rights Campaign Arkansas, the ACLU of Arkansas and NCTE — were able to unite and build political and media pressure to let the lawmakers know that HB 1986 could create the same economically toxic environment as exists in North Carolina. At that time, the transgender voices able to speak out and make that connection ensured Arkansas would not face the same challenges.

Lastly, more conservative, Republican-led and Southern states like Arkansas are making a statement that discrimination against transgender people is not worth the cost. What started on March 6 as deep concern over potential anti-transgender bills ended in early April as each of the bills quietly died in committees. Between that time, Arkansas lawmakers got the chance to meet and see transgender Arkansans and learn about their lives, their concerns and their humanity. In 2017, the conversation over the inclusion of transgender people came to the Arkansas State Capitol and with the next regular session scheduled for 2019, hopefully the start of more conversations that can benefit the lives of transgender people for years to come.


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