FAYETTEVILLE — Last year’s fight over a city ordinance giving more civil protections to gay, bisexual and transgender people largely followed a script crafted over decades, with opponents often saying the laws could be dangerous.
Fayetteville’s publicly repealed anti-discrimination law has sparked similar ordinances in other Arkansas towns and this year prompted a state law prohibiting their existence. The ordinance descended from legal fights and unvarying arguments that reach back more than 40 years.
East Lansing, Mich., passed the nation’s first employment protections for gay and bisexual city employees in 1972, long before Fayetteville’s civil-rights ordinance last year and a similar resolution in 1998. The Michigan city has added broader protections for residents from being fired, evicted or turned away from businesses because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Other cities gradually followed East Lansing’s lead. Houston passed a similar law in 1984. It was repealed in a public referendum after a backlash from religious and business groups, part of a wave of such repeals across the country, said Marc Stein, a history professor at San Francisco State University who has studied sexuality and social movements in the 20th century.
The fear that gay and transgender people are dangerous and prey on others has connected many of these disputes, said Stein and other experts and participants in Fayetteville’s debates.
“The big moment occurred in the late ’70s, when Anita Bryant launched her campaign,” Stein said, referring to the then-popular singer and political activist who successfully led the charge to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Fla.
“She was quite successful in galvanizing conservative activists across the country to head off and repeal these ordinances.”
Two decades later, the fight arrived in Arkansas.
Fayetteville Alderman Randy Zurcher introduced a resolution declaring that the city wouldn’t make hiring or firing decisions based on sexual orientation. The City Council approved it on April 21, 1998, in a 6-2 vote — the same margin by which last year’s ordinance was approved.
Zurcher and his supporters said the resolution would send a message of acceptance, worth and fairness to gay people.
“That’s not controversial, nor is it negotiable,” Zurcher said at the time.
Opponents at the City Council meeting cited religious principles, saying the ordinance would encourage unhealthy, immoral or dangerous behavior.
Many pointed to AIDS as an example of the dangers and warned that Fayetteville would become a gay haven like San Francisco.
Gene Fulcher, who was then a pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, suggested that pedophiles could be protected or their behavior condoned under the resolution.
“Do not some of those people think this [pedophilia] is their sexual orientation?” Fulcher asked the council. “Is that not endangering children?”
He drew applause from the audience when he added, “I appreciate the City Council members that see the dangers.”
Bryant’s campaign was called “Save Our Children.” Civil-protection opponents in Houston in 1984 called homosexuality a source of disease and a danger to public health, but cited little scientific support for those arguments, according to an account in Flagrant Conduct.
The 2012 book by civil liberties professor Dale Carpenter details the history of gay rights in Texas.
“They [gay people] carry fungal, amoebal and viral infections,” psychologist Paul Cameron told the Houston City Council 30 years ago. “What gays do in public is disgusting; what they do in private is deadly.”
Opponents of last year’s Fayetteville ordinance argued that someone could harass or assault someone in a bathroom of the opposite sex and then claim that the ordinance’s gender identity provision protected such behavior.
“Based on the credible evidence that I received from attorneys and people that had done analysis of the ordinance, I believe it could have done that,” said Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, a conservative group that worked with local opponents of the ordinance.
Research has found no evidence that homosexual or transgender people are more likely than others to sexually assault someone, according to the American Psychological Association. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs has found people are actually more likely to be sexually assaulted by heterosexuals.
Claims of danger and the resulting fear can be powerful in galvanizing one group against another, said Scott Eidelman, a social psychologist at the University of Arkansas who specializes in politics and stereotyping.
“What the research shows is when you scare people, they convert to a more conservative position. You raise some fear, you introduce some threat, and people are going to play it safe,” Eidelman said.
Cox said warnings of danger are just one piece of the opposing argument.
“We have a public that many times is very shallow on some of these issues,” he said. The warning “is an easy, quick way to say this is bad. I’m not saying that is incorrect information, but that’s only a part of the problem with these ordinances, because they reach all over the place.”
More recent civil-protection warnings seem to have shifted targets a bit, Stein said.
Opponents now “focus on trans rights specifically, because they know they’ll be less successful if they attack good, old-fashioned gays and lesbians,” he said, referring to transgender people.
Cox agreed that more of the debate is focused on transgender people and gender identity.
“I don’t know when those terms became part of the debate. People just talked about sexual orientation, and that was sort of code-speak for homosexuals, gays and lesbians,” he said.
“I see the debate expanding to encompass other orientations or perceived orientations, or whatever you want to call it.”
Justine Turnage, a Fayetteville woman who was born male, agrees that the argument that transgender people are dangerous has been amplified in recent years. She called it a “smokescreen” that hides more important problems.
“We’re stuck having to defend it rather than talking about health care, employment, housing, the epidemic of transgender murder, things like that,” Turnage said.
At least seven transgender people have been murdered in the U.S. since Jan. 1, according to USA Today and other media outlets.
“We’re starving, we’re homeless, we’re being murdered. Who cares about the toilets?” she said, referring to the debate over which restrooms transgender people should use.
Transgender women can have a particularly rough time if they still have male physiology, Turnage said, because people can perceive men as more dangerous and sexual than women.
Many opponents argued last year that Fayetteville’s ordinance was unnecessary, or would deprive churches and businesses of some of their freedoms.
Fulcher, the Baptist pastor, wrote a letter to the editor of The Northwest Arkansas Times in November that simply said gay people didn’t need additional protections.
But, Anne Shelley, who directs the Northwest Arkansas Rape Crisis Center and fought for the legal protections in 1998 and last year, said opponents’ arguments of the 1980s and ’90s “don’t fly anymore.” She pointed to transgender and gay people on TV shows and more chances for them to make their cases face-to-face with other people in town.
“We’ve seen, since ’98, obviously the societal mood about inclusion of gays and lesbians and gay marriage become far more accepted,” she said.
Twenty-one states and numerous cities have banned housing and employment discrimination that’s based on sexual orientation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In February, Eureka Springs became the only city in Arkansas with a citywide law protecting gay and transgender people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
In the past several weeks, Conway and North Little Rock city councils took similar actions, approving nondiscrimination policies for their employees.
But, the state General Assembly this session passed a bill prohibiting cities from protecting groups of people not covered under the state’s discrimination law. Arkansas forbids discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender and disabilities.
The bill became law without the governor’s signature and will go into effect 90 days after the legislative session ends.
The new state law will prevent any new city laws like the one in Eureka Springs. Meanwhile, voters in Eureka Springs are to decide in a May 12 election whether to overturn their city’s law.
“I think the anxiety remains strong in the South and in non-urban locations,” Stein said. As gay-rights proponents notch victories in some areas, people start to wonder: “What more do those people want?” Stein said, adding that such a sentiment is not uncommon with change.
Fulcher said Tuesday that his stance on the matter hasn’t changed. He compared embracing homosexuality with embracing adultery, saying it reflects a selfish wish to be validated and challenges established morality.
“I have the same concern [about] the influence an ordinance like this would have on children,” said Fulcher, who’s now pastor at Mount Hermon Church just west of the Oklahoma border and owns a home in Fayetteville. He said he had that concern in 1998 and had last year. “I believe the ordinance as it was worded last year exposes children to danger.”
“I think the right path is to engage the world and to always hold up the banner of what we believe is right,” Fulcher said.
Information for this article was contributed by Arkansas Democrat Gazette staff members.