Town In Deep South Holding Special Election To Overturn Anti-Discrimination Law

CREDIT: Shutterstock

FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS—On December 9, the residents of a college town tucked in the Ozark Mountains in northwest Arkansas will decide whether to overturn the non-discrimination ordinance passed by the City Council this summer. The ordinance is similar to policies in hundreds of cities from Phoenix, Arizona to Louisville, Kentucky. If allowed to stand, it would amend the city’s civil rights protections to ban discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic background, marital status or veteran status in hiring, housing and public accommodations.

In Fayetteville, as in most states and cities, it is still legal to fire someone just for being gay or trans. With federal protections stalled in Congress and the Arkansas legislature’s Republican super-majority expanding after this past election, the town’s LGBT residents say they need the local ordinance right away.

At a City Council meeting in August that ran until nearly 3 a.m., resident Nathan Southerland Cordsmeyer testified about the years he and his husband have spent dealing with hostile employers and landlords. “The idea that I could lose my home because someone finds out I’m gay is why we don’t need to wait,” he said. “People like me don’t feel safe here. I’m living with a shadow over my head.”

Several other residents testifying in support of the ordinance, including transgender woman Janice Walters, were so afraid of the repercussions of coming out publicly that they asked the council for permission not to give their street addresses.

After nearly ten hours of debate and public testimony, the Council passed the measure 6 to 2. But those opposed to the ordinance, mainly members of Fayetteville’s conservative Christian community, immediately began gathering the signatures for a special election to repeal it. One leader of the “Repeal 119” campaign, former-city council candidate Michael Collins, warned that the ordinance would bring “a lot of lawsuits and headaches” for business owners, and suggested that allowing transgender residents equal access to bathrooms would lead to assault or trauma. “People will be alarmed if they see nudity in a bathroom that doesn’t belong to the gender they expect,” he told the council. “That’s not fear-mongering or intolerance, it’s actual legitimate facts.”

Collins and his group gathered more than the 5,000 signatures necessary to trigger a special election on repeal, but those in favor of the civil rights protections contend the wording that will be on the ballot (pictured below) is misleading.

AR ballot

CREDIT: Repeal 119

Anne Shelley, who works at the Northwest Arkansas Rape Crisis Center, and is leading the Keep Fayetteville Fair campaign, told ThinkProgress she’s concerned it’s unclear that a yes vote is in favor of repeal, not in favor of the ordinance.

“In my work at this rape crisis center, we pound into everyone’s head that yes means yes and no means no, and anything other than that is confusing, and frankly does not allow someone to give consent,” said Shelley. “We want to make sure everyone who votes is really consenting to what they want to say.”

Speaking to ThinkProgress in her office, where sexual assault survivors can seek medical care, shelter and therapy, Shelley said she’s been “greatly saddened” that those against the ordinance have repeatedly raised the specter of rape and assault.

“To say we should repeal this fair-minded ordinance because someone might be sexually assaulted would be like saying we could no longer have churches, because I know people who have been assaulted in churches by people they know and trust, or that we shouldn’t have families anymore, because it happens within families as well,” said Shelley, who is herself a survivor of childhood sexual assault. “It just doesn’t logically make sense.”

Supporters of the ordinance are also pushing back against claims by Repeal 119 proponents that the protections would hurt business owners. “An inclusive community is an economically prosperous community,” said Greg LeDing, who represents Fayetteville in the Arkansas House of Representatives. “I know people are saying they’re afraid local businesses might be hurt, but there have been 200 other cities who have passed similar ordinance and I haven’t heard any stories of business that have gone under because of it. In fact, we have Walmart, the largest company in the history of the universe, just up the road in Bentonville and they have a non-discrimination policy. They even had a Pride team in this year’s Pride Parade in Fayetteville.”

The other biggest employer in town, the enormous University of Arkansas, also has a non-discrimination policy that covers sexual orientation and gender identity. Shelley says it would be good for the whole community to come in line with that. “If we really want to attract and retain the best folks in our community, who want to work at the university or open businesses here, they need to be sure they’re safe and can find places to live and stay,” she said.

With the legal protections passed by the council on hold, many residents are speaking out against the upcoming special election. Resident Laura Hampton, her voice breaking, said at a City Council meeting: “I don’t believe this should be put to a public vote. I’m not really familiar with a time when public safety has ever been considered optional, and that’s really what this feels like.” Resident Joseph Collins added: “We’ve already had our election. We elected the city council,” who passed the non-discrimination law.

Even as she prepares to canvass for a no vote on the repeal at local farmers markets and libraries, Shelley told ThinkProgress: “Throughout history, it has been extremely problematic to have the majority vote on the rights of the minority.”

In 1998, Fayetteville’s city council passed a similar non-discrimination ordinance, but it only applied to city employees and it did not include gender identity. Then, as they did this year, religious residents gathered enough signatures to put a measure to repeal on the ballot, and it passed. Shelley, who has lived in Fayetteville since 1996, told ThinkProgress there is one major difference between then and now.

“At that time, it was harder to find folks to come out as gay or lesbian to speak out on behalf of [the ordinance], but now we’ve had 10 or 15 brave transgender folks speaking on camera in front of city council,” she said. “More people are so open, which has changed society as a whole.”