Given the ugliness of the times, and the fact that the Men With Bad Haircuts in the Arkansas State Legislature are intent on staying on the wrong side on history, it seems right to repost this article I wrote in 1998, when the Washington County Quorum Court, at the height of the Human Dignity battle in Fayetteville, voted to remove long-time job protections for gay and lesbian employees – which they had enjoyed for the better part of a decade. The bigotry heard that night is reminiscent of much of what we still hear in 2015.
Washington County withdraws employment protection for gays
The differences between the governing styles of the Fayetteville City Council and the Washington County Quorum Court have never been more evident than on the evening of July 9, when the county governing body made the decision to remove what legal job protection gay county employees have enjoyed for almost ten years. The clause dealing with “sexual orientation” was dropped from the County’s Personnel Policy. Prior to Thursday night, the policy read:
“It is the policy of Washington County to provide employment opportunities to all qualified persons; to prohibit discrimination against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, sexual orientation, political affiliation, veteran’s status or disability, and to promote the full realization of equal employment opportunity through a positive continuing program of affirmative action.”
This policy was set in place by the Washington County Quorum Court in 1990, using the policies of the University of Arkansas as an example. Several Justices of the Peace justified their actions by saying that federal law did not specifically protect jobs on the basis on homosexuality, though no move has been made to remove the clause protecting jobs on the basis of political affiliation, which is also not protected by federal statute.
When the city of Fayetteville passed the recent Human Dignity Resolution, which protects the employment rights of gay employees, there were charges made that increased insurance costs would assault the city. In the eight years since Washington County adopted this policy, such fears have not come to pass, a fact which some feel is discomfiting to those who have made the claim about Fayetteville.
There has been speculation that it is precisely because of this fact that the clause had to be removed; it was an embarrassment to those who would sell a different argument.
Both sides were well-represented during the debate. As is usual with such public debates, there was scattered applause when speakers made points, and alternately, angry muffling under people’s breath.
It became quickly apparent that at least some of the JPs had their minds made up, and so were not open to discussion or pleas for understanding or tolerance. And as so often is the case, those attempting to break through their collective stonewalling were doomed to disappointment.
Springdale JP David Ruff, who made the original move to strike the phrase at the July 1 meeting of the Washington County Quorum Court’s Personnel Committee, made a public apology to the gay men and women of Washington County. Many had taken offense at his earlier remarks distinguishing between voters and gays. Though he said that he realized that gay people were also citizens, it was clear that some in the audience were not mollified by his statement. He also said that his intention was merely to “lean up’” county policies.
JP Lyell Thompson, who was also a member of the 1990 body which adopted the protective clause, reminded his fellow JPs that the treatment of minorities in the United States has not been admirable.
JP Rocky Parsons said that to him, it came down to two points, one of which is the question of morality. Apologizing for introducing an analogy that he felt some would find “distasteful,” he also said he was confused by the term, “sexual orientation,” wondering what wou1d happen if the county hired someone whose “orientation” just happened to include children. Would that mean that this person’s job would be protected? His query produced stares of incredulity from the audience.
JP Wilson Kimbrough said that he agreed with 1990 Quorum Court which voted to protect the rights of the county’s gay employee’s, and was determined to vote to keep the clause.
Most JPs, perhaps wisely, chose not to speak during the debate.
JP Bill Yancey claimed that the inclusion of such a clause only reminded people that they could sue somebody if they wanted to. He said he was not interested in what people did for “entertainment.”
Carolyn Wagner of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) spoke to the court, telling them that gays did not want “special rights,” but merely the same basic rights as everyone else. She also said that the issue was not about anyone’s sexual behavior, but rather that making sure that everyone was treated fairly in the workplace.
In a direct counter to Rocky Parsons, she quoted a 1994 issue of Pediatrics, which stated that children are 100 times more likely to be sexually abused by a heterosexual male relative than by a gay person.
One member of the audience expressed the feeling that the court should “not put in law behavior that most decent people consider repugnant. . . this has nothing to do with civil rights. These people know their behavior is repugnant, they know it is wrong, and they want us to accept it so they will lose their shame. If their shame goes away, then their guilt goes away.” He went on to urge the court not to make Washington County “a small San Francisco.”
Randy Zurcher, the Fayetteville alderman who first brought the Human Dignity Resolution to a council vote, then came up to address the court. He was clearly in a confrontational mood, and began by saying, “I can’t see any real reason behind the action you are talking about taking, other than plain ignorance and political expediency in an election year. That’s not right. Intolerance is bad for a city. Intolerance breeds violence.”
Turning his attention to Rocky Parsons, Zurcher said, “We protect people because discrimination exists . . . when has the term sexual orientation been too vague? I’ll tell you the meaning of sexual orientation. Are you gay? Are you straight? Bisexual? That is a pretty accepted definition.”
Zurcher closed by saying to Parsons, “What was distasteful was not your analogy. What was distasteful was your ignorance.”
Several of the speakers spoke to the fact that the current policy only dealt with hiring and firing on the part of Washington County itself, not to private businesses in the county.
Speaking as a gay man, James Andrew Jackson said that he took the whole discussion personally, and found it very offensive. He described the efforts to remove the phrase as “bigotry.”
Anne Shelley spoke to the issue of fairness, saying that this was what this entire policy was based on. She asked JPs if they “have pictures of your loved ones where you work? Do you think about your families at work? Do you talk openly with your co-workers about what you do when you are not at work?”
Fixing the court members with her gaze, she said, “May I interject a few words?” Her voice became harder as she said, “Dyke, faggot, nigger, kike.” At this point, there was open discomfort on the faces of several of the court members.
“None of us believe that those words are fair,” she continued, “and I doubt, Mr. Parsons, that you have ever had any of those words directed at you. I doubt, Mr. Ruff, if you have either, or you, Mr. Yancey. I have. They are not fair, and it is just ridiculous to me that this is before us and thinking it be fair suddenly after eight years to take that out of the policy.”
Bobbie Williams, reminding the court that sodomy was still against the law, and that they had taken an oath to uphold the law, asked, “What if I decided I wanted to fall in love with an animal?” He said that the county would have to protect his rights.
Charlie Brown, a Fayetteville minister, told the JPs that it is “not a civil rights issue. This is an issue of choice.” He claimed that gays could be “cured” if they so desired, and proceeded to tell the JPs that many of the historical figures that were reckoned to be gay really weren’t.
One surprise of the evening was JP Mike Russell’s voting to remove the clause. Earlier, he had been quoted in the Northwest Arkansas Times as saying, “Sometimes we change things out of fear, and I don’t think that’s a valid concern in this case.” He explained Thursday night that he was looking at it simply in employment terms, and that job performance should be the only criteria .
JP Rod White, long a proponent of “less government,” said that he was in favor of removing governmental controls, even if only by a few words at a time, so he would vote to remove the clause.
And then it was over. When the voting was done, eight JPs voted to remove the clause, and four voted to retain it. As the results were announced, there was applause from some in the audience.
In the end, perhaps it was just another battle in what is shaping up to be one of the major issues facing Northwest Arkansas and the entire nation. JP Wilson Kimbrough had some words of warning as the debate came to an end, speaking on the future of employment. “It is more likely that in the future people will determine one way or another what a person’s sexual orientation is. And if it is not what they want, they will eliminate them. And that is going to start happening more and more in the future. Everybody needs to be aware of that, because this is the first government agency around here which has done this, and it is on the way. And it is going to happen some more.”
Which, of course, may be exactly what some are hoping will come
Ozark Gazette – July 13, 1998
Quote of the Day
Expect people to be better than they are; it helps them to become better. But don’t be disappointed when they are not; it helps them to keep trying. – Merry Browne