At a time when states are developing new legislation affecting sexuality and gender identity issues, the OutLaw Legal Society at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's law school has received a grant to help with legal education and services for the state's LGBTQ population.
The $15,000 grant from the Arkansas Community Foundation will facilitate work with community partners to hold "rainbow clinics" that provide legal assistance for LGBTQ Arkansans, people who identify as "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer."
The OutLaw Legal Society also plans to create a toolkit for lawyers that provides resources for the name and gender change legal processes, said Melody Weigel, adviser to OutLaw Legal Society at the William H. Bowen School of Law.
"If a client, from any state, comes to an attorney here, that attorney will be able to assist them," she said.
The third "spoke" in this wheel is offering continuing legal education events, focused particularly on timely Arkansas LGBTQ legal issues, so attorneys can have the broadest client base and the knowledge they need to serve those clients, said Weigel, admissions and records specialist at the Bowen School of Law. That includes hosting professional development events on relevant topics to the LGBTQ community for attorneys and law school students.
"The client base has always been there and always will be there," Weigel said. "You need attorneys who represent everyone in a community, and communities are diverse."
"It's important to serve all communities in Arkansas" -- the state ranks near the bottom in America for fewest number of lawyers per capita -- "and make sure they are well-served by lawyers," Bowen Dean Theresa Beiner said in December.
The OutLaw Legal Society, which has about 50 individuals associated with it, is dedicated to promoting diversity, raising awareness of legal issues affecting LGBTQ people, and maintaining an open atmosphere of respect, equality, and justice for all, according to UALR.
It's twice been named Bowen's Student Organization of the Year due to extensive community involvement, on-campus engagement, and volunteerism, such as pitching in at legal clinics with pro bono services to low-income individuals who needed assistance with name and gender changes, leading education events regarding healthcare issues affecting the LGBTQ community, creating a student scholarship fund, and conducting a holiday supply drive for Lucie's Place (a local nonprofit organization dedicated to rehousing LGBTQ youth who may be unsheltered).
"The OutLaw Legal Society is a wonderfully supportive group on Bowen's campus [that] provides great public service work, which is one of the reasons why it has won Bowen's student organization of the year award" twice, Beiner said Wednesday. "OutLaw is among a diverse group of student organizations that serve a wide variety of student interests at Bowen."
Other organizations may have longer histories than OutLaw, but "we're building a foundation and have made a lot of good progress," Weigel said. "Momentum perpetuates momentum."
LAWS AND BILLS
Several states are considering -- or have already passed -- laws considered deleterious to LGBTQ individuals, particularly transgender people.
On Tuesday, the Arkansas House Education Committee approved a bill that would restrict transgender people from using the restroom of their choice, despite parents of transgender students, transgender adults, and activists decrying the bill, arguing it discriminates against and harms vulnerable youth. The full Arkansas House approved the bill Wednesday. The bill moves to the Senate for consideration.
Transgender youth are already more at risk of violence, bullying, harassment, and suicidal ideation than their cisgender peers, according to data from the Trevor Project, which conducts an annual survey of LGBTQ youth nationwide.
Other states have taken similar steps many view as discriminatory against LGBTQ individuals, according to The New York Times, with Republican lawmakers filing an unprecedented number of bills targeting transgender youth throughout the country.
Republican lawmakers have filed more than 20 bills this session tackling subjects like gender-transition treatment, school curricula, and the ability to change one's gender on identification documents, which is three times as many bills as in any other year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In Indiana, for example, lawmakers overturned Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb's veto of a law prohibiting transgender girls from playing girls sports in school last year, and numerous bills seen as hostile to the LGBTQ community are at various stages of development in the Indiana Legislature this session.
In Tennessee, the Republican-dominant legislature advanced several proposals Tuesday that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth and severely limit access to drag shows -- which are both contentious issues in Arkansas, as well.
These "headline" legal issues are of course important to the LGBTQ community, but these individuals also need assistance with more "basic, day-to-day legal services," Weigel said. Something as seemingly simple as changing one's name, for example, can have a major impact on one's ability to access basic services -- from healthcare to the benefits of marriage -- and "we want equal access for everyone."
Caleb Scott, a second-year Bowen law student who serves as president of OutLaw Legal Society, said the grant allows the already highly active student organization to expand its services.
"OutLaw's scope has reached its max threshold of what students can do without extra funding," Scott said in a news release from UALR. "With this grant, we are able to go out and do more and help more people. We are so thankful to the Arkansas Community Foundation for their support."
Funding is "a critical element," Weigel said. "Student organizations don't typically apply for grants -- law schools do -- and we're so excited for this grant, because [it'll help] us take things to the next level."