Arkansas lawmakers are determined to make life worse for LGBTQ people

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The Arkansas General Assembly has passed three anti-LGBTQ bills in the current session, and two have been enacted so far this year.

The Arkansas General Assembly has passed three anti-LGBTQ bills so far this year, two of which have already been signed into law by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The third bill passed the Senate on Monday and will now head to the governor for his signature.

The newest bill, H.B. 1570, titled the "Arkansas Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act," would prohibit health care providers from giving gender-affirming care, including hormone therapy and puberty blockers, to transgender youth.

The bill includes language stating banning insurance coverage for such procedures for people under age 18 and permitting health benefit plans offered by insurance companies in Arkansas not to provide reimbursements for procedures related to transitioning.

"It would open the door to insurance-based discrimination against all transgender people across the state of Arkansas," said Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the American Civil Liberties Union LGBTQ and HIV Project, during a press call before the vote. "It would be the first and only bill of its kind to pass."

Dr. Lee Beers, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said during the call, "This is discrimination by legislation and transgender children and all children deserve better."

The American Civil Liberties Union urged the governor to veto the bill. Hutchinson hasn't said whether he will sign it. It will automatically become law five days after it reached his desk if he doesn't sign or veto it.

Holly Dickson, executive director and legal director of American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, stated, "The whole country is watching whether Arkansas will continue this discriminatory race to the bottom that has cost other states millions. House Bill 1570 is the codification of cruelty, and for the well-being of all Arkansans, Governor Hutchinson should veto this cruel and harmful bill the moment it reaches his desk. If he doesn't, we will see the state in court." 

On Thursday, Hutchinson signed S.B. 534, which excludes transgender girls and women from playing sports on the team of their gender from elementary school to college.

"This law simply says that female athletes should not have to compete in a sport against a student of the male sex when the sport is designed for women’s competition. As I have stated previously, I agree with the intention of this law. This will help promote and maintain fairness in women’s sporting events," Hutchinson said in a signing statement.

Arkansas is now the third state, after Tennessee and Mississippi, to enact a sports ban, even though many of the state lawmakers introducing anti-trans legislation across the United States have failed to find examples of how transgender athletes have hurt anyone involved in women's and girls sports.

On Friday, Hutchinson signed S.B. 289, which lets hospitals, pharmacies, and medical practitioners refuse to provide services on the basis of their religious, moral, or ethical beliefs. As of March 25, Arkansas is the only state to have passed a bill this year providing religious exemptions in health care that would harm LGBTQ people, according to the ACLU.

Experts on LGBTQ health issues say that LGBTQ people may refrain from seeking health care if they believe they will experience discrimination.

As of March 11, state lawmakers had introduced at least 109 anti-LGBTQ bills, 73 of which are focused on transgender people, and many of which are aimed at participation in sports and what LGBTQ advocacy groups call life-saving transition-related health care.

The bills are part of a coordinated effort by national anti-LGBTQ organizations to use and stoke the public's fears about transgender people after their legislative attacks on marriage equality failed.

The reasons for the success of anti-LGBTQ legislation in Arkansas include the state's shift farther to the right over the last decade, state politicians who use fearmongering about transgender people to advance politically, and national conservative groups that wield a lot of power in the state.

Karen Sebold, assistant professor in the University of Arkansas' department of political science, said, "You also have a contingent of legislators that are vying for higher office and see these issues as bait for their base. Interestingly, there are pockets of the state that you will find a majority of citizens supporting LGBTQ rights. Fayetteville and Bentonville, for example, but the representatives in these areas are outweighed and marginalized by the supermajority of far-right conservatives."

Sebold; Dickson; Rumba Yambú, director of a transgender community organization called inTRANSitive; and Eric Reece, state director of Human Rights Campaign Arkansas have all pointed to the influence of the Family Research Council as one possible source of some of these bills' success. The organization has family policy councils across the country, including the Arkansas Family Council. 

Reece told the American Independent Foundation that the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation, which have been instrumental in pushing many anti-trans bills this year, are working with the family councils.

"The deep resources of these national conservative organizations have brought in their lawyers to write and provide testimony as well as bring in so-called 'expert' witnesses on these heinous harmful bills," Reece explained.

Dickson said that the fight for LGBTQ equality in Arkansas has faced many challenges. She said the state was the second in the United States to pass a law banning cities and counties from passing nondiscrimination protections in public accommodations, housing, and employment.

"Arkansas has long been a leader in regressive legislation that attacks LGBTQ Arkansans," Dickson said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.