Battleground Arkansas: On the front lines of the fight to preserve transgender rights and dignity

The fight for transgender equality is long, storied, and filled with moments of great progress and heartbreaking setbacks. For years, transgender Americans have worked hard to achieve great progress and social gains. But 2016 saw the introduction of more than 50 state-level bills that explicitly targeted transgender Americans; not including many others which sought to impose burdens. While many of these bills remain as yet undecided, they were only the preliminary skirmishes for much larger battles already underway in 2017.

NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling speaks during event at Arkansas state house in Little Rock, March 20, 2017.

As we approach the one year anniversary of North Carolina’s egregious HB 2 transgender bathroom ban, lawmakers in Arkansas and other numerous states have been quietly advancing oppressive and discriminatory laws that treat transgender people like second-class citizens. Legislators pushing these bills are recklessly ignoring the concerns raised by constituents and business leaders, the catastrophic impact of legalized discrimination on North Carolina’s economy and the simple fact that while none of the problems these bills purport to solve are supported by evidence, the harms they inflict on transgender people and their loved ones are all too real.

At least six bills exist in various states of debate or approval in the Arkansas state house. Rather than solving any real problems affecting their constituents, these bills are overt attacks on transgender Americans and only serve to allow extremist officials to spin tales of fear and divisiveness for their own political gains.

Image courtesy of Equality Federation, http://www.equalityfederation.org/lac/antitrans/

The Arkansas House of Representatives recently passed HB 1986, which makes it a crime to expose one’s “sex organs to a person of the opposite biological sex.” Proponents of this bill — now before the Senate — claim it’s intended to combat indecent exposure in public spaces. But this bill does nothing to keep people any safer or prevent harmful activities that aren’t already illegal. Instead, this bill targets the thousands of transgender people in Arkansas by creating a special crime — punishable by prison time and lifetime criminal record — based on the long-debunked myth of transgender people sneaking into restrooms to harm people or make them uncomfortable. Should this bill become law, it could subject anyone even mistakenly perceived to be transgender to harassment or having the police called on them. The thought that simply meeting a basic human need could lead to police interrogation, arrest, prosecution and/or prison time is terrifying.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas Senate is trying to police transgender people’s access to restrooms from another angle. It is currently considering SB 774, a bill that would prohibit transgender people from using the right restrooms at school, colleges, and other government buildings, like public hospitals, government service offices, and legislative buildings. This bill would make it hard for transgender children and adults — who already face high levels of mistreatment and discrimination — to simply go to school, get essential services and participate in public life.

Other Arkansas bills double down on oppressing transgender citizens. Take HB 1894, which would take away people’s ability to change the gender on their birth certificates. As numerous Arkansan legislators have pointed out, this bill creates problems without solving any. Arkansas already has one of the most restrictive processes in the country for updating one’s birth certificate — and neither Arkansas nor any other state has experienced problems with policies that allow people to change their birth certificates. Meanwhile, the bill can cause serious harm to transgender Arkansans, who, like everyone else, need proper documentation in order to fully participate in society. Without updated documents, many transgender people are at risk for harassment, discrimination and violence each time birth certificate use is required. Which is surprisingly often; when enrolling in school, applying for jobs and obtaining other identity documents. In fact, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey of nearly 28,000 adults, 32% of respondents who have shown identity documents which didn’t match their gender identity or presentation were denied services, asked to leave an establishment, harassed or physically assaulted.

Arkansas’ bills are only the tip of the nationwide anti-transgender iceberg. At present, nearly 50 bills explicitly targeting transgender people are up for debate or vote in about two dozen states. Should Arkansas’ bills become law, the precedents could embolden the passage of similarly discriminatory bills in other states, including Tennessee. This week, the Volunteer State’s legislature is set to consider House Bill 888 and its companion, Senate Bill 771 — bills which target transgender young people by requiring them to use restrooms corresponding to their original birth certificates in public schools and colleges. Meanwhile, the Texas Senate recently passed its own bathroom ban, SB 6, now before its House.

Get involved, Fight Back! Despite the tremendous gains we’ve made as a community, we cannot afford to relax. As the old saying goes, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. NCTE’s website has many resources at the national level, and dozens of groups are on the front lines fighting for trans equality in most states. Contact your local advocates and get involved! Be visible, be engaged and stay focused. Know your members of Congress at the Federal levels, but also know your local elected officials; and make sure they know you.