The U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on June 26 striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and letting a lower court decision overturning California’s Proposition 8 made gay rights history.
Grant Tennille’s call on July 8 for Arkansas to lead the way in the South and move to dismantle its own constitutional prohibition against same-sex marriage made Arkansas gay rights history.
Tennille, the executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said at a Monday morning press conference at the state Capitol called in tandem with the release of a poll showing increasing support among Arkansans for marriage equality that it’s a “no-brainer” that Arkansas should not discriminate against the LGBT community. If Arkansas wants to attract new business and keep its intellectual capital, “its best and brightest,” in state, it must grant full rights, including same-sex marriage, to all its citizens. “Companies look for locations where all its employees can be welcome. The first state that moves in that direction will have a leg up.”
Tennille started his speech with a reference to British codebreaker Alan Turing, who committed suicide after pleading guilty to an English law prohibiting sodomy. Turing, whose Turing machine invention is the predecessor of modern computers, broke the German Enigma code and “saved millions of lives,” Tennille said. In Arkansas “we have an opportunity to move first and be a leader in the country, and especially the South, to say all our citizens will be treated equally under the law.” To grant marriage and job rights “will mean economic growth, I have no doubt. Because I know the story of Alan Turing.”
Tennille said he had cleared his remarks with Gov. Mike Beebe’s chief of staff, Morril Harriman. “He said go for it,” Tennille said.
In response to a reporter’s question, Tennille said he sees Beebe as a “father figure,” but he did not believe Beebe has changed his mind on same-sex marriage. “I would hope over time his opinion” will change, he added.
Chad Griffin, the Arkansas native who is the national director of the Human Rights Campaign and who was one of the leaders in the successful fight for marriage equality in California, said it was time to “double down” to pass a same-sex marriage law in Arkansas. He cited the just-released HRC poll data that showed that 61 percent of Arkansans under 30 say “everyone should be free to marry who they love.” The poll was conducted June 26-30 by the bipartisan team of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (Democratic) and Target Point Consulting (Republican); 600 Arkansans participated. Another of the findings was that most people do not know that it is legal under federal and Arkansas law to fire someone for being gay; 82 percent believed it illegal under federal law and 75 percent believed it illegal under state law. A majority, 57 percent, believe discrimination against LGBT people is a problem.
Rep. Deborah Ferguson, D-West Memphis, and Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, joined the call for marriage equality. Afterward, Ferguson said she would look to guidance from the HRC whether to put forward a bill in the 2015 legislature seeking a referendum on marriage equality. Referendums are vastly expensive propositions; proponents want to be reasonably sure of passage before they’re launched.
Griffin followed up the press conference with a noon Q and A session with former state Rep. Kathy Webb at the Clinton School of Public Service on the importance of passing marriage equality laws in every state. “Organize, organize, organize,” he advised. “We need both Republicans and Democrats or we won’t win.”
Both Griffin and Webb noted that they’ve been told by various lawmakers that there just weren’t many gays among their constituencies. “You laugh,” he said to the packed audience with its high number of gay and lesbians; it was his first reaction, too, to think the lawmakers were blind to reality. But, he said, on second thought he realized that if they didn’t know there were LGBT folk in the areas they represented, “the responsibility is on us — they had not heard enough of us.”
In response to a question from Webb, Griffin — who at 19, when he worked for President Clinton, became the youngest West Wing staffer in history — said it was “incredibly gratifying” to see his mentors the Clintons (and President Obama as well) evolve in their attitudes toward same-sex marriage. The DOMA law was signed by President Clinton; he recently repudiated it. Griffin related a story about catching an Amtrak train in New York last spring and finding Hillary Clinton on board (not being secretary of state means your travel style is “downgraded,” he joked) and having a “great conversation” with her. It was just a few days later that Clinton made the video in which she declared that “gay rights are human rights,” and expressed her support for same-sex marriage.
Asked by state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, about the divide among blacks and whites on the marriage equality issue, Griffin cited HRC’s successful campaign in Maryland — which is 40 percent black — to pass a marriage equality law there, a campaign that took the support of black pastors and which he said “moved the needle” in creating partnerships that crossed color lines.
Griffin talked about the impact on gay youth of the passage of Proposition 8 — California’s law prohibiting same-sex marriage that the Supreme Court, by declining to hear an appeal, has overturned — and other DOMA-like laws. Prop 8 and other laws passed with huge percentages of the popular vote, sending a “tragic” message to young gay people that they are second-class, Griffin said. The reversal of the federal DOMA law by the U.S. Supreme Court has helped ameliorate that, but Griffin said it was important to fight on, for both youth and for older gay couples who, though they are legally married, are facing questions of access to benefits and hospital care. So how should Arkansas proceed? Griffin said he wasn’t ready to announce anything yet about an Arkansas HRC chapter, but said he was going to “keep coming back” until there is equality for the LGBT community. “We have to be smart and we have to be strategic” with the kinds of lawsuits brought and jurisdictions they’re filed in, Griffin said, saying he deferred to “legal minds” and the “folks at ACLU” on how to proceed; “it’s really important that we listen to those who lead the way” in civil rights battles.