Commentary

Arkansas lawmakers voted unanimously to recognize trans folks in state law in 1981

Arkansas lawmakers voted unanimously to recognize trans folks in state law in 1981
As of yet, Arkansas' civil rights law doesn't include sexual orientation or gender identity.Photo:

More than a few people wrote Bill Clinton’s political obituary after his long-winded speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Then Johnny Carson rehabilitated him.

The electorate of Arkansas attempted to write his obituary eight years before that, voting him out of the governorship after a single two-year term.  Of course, by 1988 he’d again gotten comfy in the Natural State’s governor’s mansion.

Related: Trans girls could face criminal charges for trying out for school sports if Minnesota bill passes

After two years of Republican Frank White, Bill Clinton seemed acceptable again.  Oddly enough, he wasn’t overwhelmingly acceptable for the LGBs of Arkansas, only getting an endorsement rather late in the election season.

Still, he and Hillary were on their way to the White House (though, as we know, she was denied the right to be listed as its primary resident), leaving the 1981-82 interregnum of Bill Clinton’s career often overlooked.

This is in part, presumably, more because of White than because of anything else.  After defeating Clinton by a few thousand votes in 1980, White declared the upset to be a “victory for the Lord.”  White’s own chief of staff derided him as a “complete amateur.”

On February 19th, however, the Republican signed Senate Bill 256, the Arkansas Vital Statistics Act of 1981.

A document accompanying the bill explained that it would “revise and modernize the laws of Arkansas relative to Vital Statistics” and would “reflect some of the social customs and practices that are happening frequently in Vital Records Registration.”  Specifically, it pointed out that recognition of “surgical sex changes” was already being done administratively.  The new statute would simply make clear that the authority for such actions existed.

As you might imagine, the bill ran into some difficulty. As you might not imagine, however, that difficulty had nothing to do with the recognition of the reality of transition.

The medical lobby had managed to get chiropractors excluded from the bill’s definition of “physician.”  An amendment undid that bit of professional bullying. Once it was adopted, there was no opposition to the bill.

The Arkansas Legislature consists of 35 senators and 100 representatives. Senate Bill 256 passed 34-0 in the Senate and 92-0 in the House.

So, four years after the neighboring home state of Bill Clinton’s eventual vice-presidential running mate hardwired away the ability of trans people born there to conform their birth certificates to the reality of life as it is lived, Arkansas traveled the road of science and recognized transition.

Interestingly, the same set of House members that passed the trans birth certificate bill without opposition also approved a resolution asking the University of Arkansas-Little Rock not to allow a gay-focused course to be taught on campus.  The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Jerry King, threatened the school’s funding when the course was entitled “Understanding Homosexuality,” extracting a promise from the school’s president that it would not be allowed.  The course subsequently appeared in the fall with the title “Gay American History,” with King remarking, “The constitutional question probably would be whether we can project in a classroom historically the significance of this perversion.

The bigotry behind the opposition to the course is self-evident.

The provision of the Arkansas Vital Statistics Act of 1981 that trans people care about survives 40 years later.  The good news is that an effort to erase the trans-political border between Tennessee and Arkansas failed.  The bad news is that the statute still privileges surgical transition.

Bad news, yes. But in a state that has enacted one of the fraudulently entitled ‘intrastate commerce improvement act’ bills – concoctions that have nothing to do with commerce but everything to do with banning local LGBT rights ordinances (and usually local minimum wage increases as well) without running afoul of Romer v. Evans – it could be a lot worse.

Trans girls could face criminal charges for trying out for school sports if Minnesota bill passes

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