It’s easy, from a distance, to think that Arkansas is awash with backward, homophobic yokels when its legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would allow businesses to discriminate against gay couples getting married. Governor Asa Hutchinson has sent it back to the legislature for rewording. Part of the reason is undoubtedly that Wal-Mart and other big corporations had asked him to veto it. They were worried about their bottom lines after watching many other businesses, and at least one state, pledge to boycott Indiana when the Hoosier State’s own version passed a few days earlier.
But there were plenty of people who call Arkansas home and didn’t like the law either—and like the Southerners who opposed joining the Confederacy, it’s important that history doesn’t forget them. In the past few days, my Facebook timeline has been awash with shares from people—voters, taxpayers, and proud Arkansans—who want the governor to veto the law, and there have been public statements from religious leaders and other state organizations expressing their disproval.
They don’t want their home state to be a source of embarrassment. One of them is Cira Abiseid, who grew up in my hometown, and married her partner in Hawaii in December 2013. She and her partner also had a ceremony in Arkansas for friends and family, though the state does not legally recognize their union. (Marriage equality is being pursued in the courts there.) Their local paper carried their wedding announcement, which was heralded as the one of the first same-sex wedding announcements published in the state.
“I’m very proud of my state and where I come from, that’s why I still live here. Arkansas is a great place,” Abiseid, now 31, told me. “It’s disheartening and one more thing that the state of Arkansas says ‘You can’t do and can’t have because you are second-class because of how you were born and who you are as a human being.’”
Abiseid and her wife, and couples like them, are surrounded by supportive friends and family who don’t like the bill. Tens of thousands of people in the state, especially younger ones, asked Hutchinson to veto it in petitions circulating online. In fact, Hutchinson said his own son signed one. The generational change and progress gay rights has made even in red states in recent years has been astounding, and maybe that’s why the bill was passed by this conservative legislature so quickly. “Gay people started to gain some ground,” Abseid says. “I think it’s in response to that.”
I spoke to another Arkansan, J.D. DiLoreto, who moved to Fayetteville from Massachusetts when his partner got a job at the University of Arkansas. DiLoreto is a graduate student there and also works at the school. For him, some of it seems like a backlash to an anti-discrimination law that included sexual orientation and sexual identity as protected classes, which passed the Fayetteville City Council last summer. That law was forced to referendum and was overturned in a low-turnout vote in December.
DiLoreto, who’s 28, says he’s liked Fayetteville in his two years there more than he expected to. As far as being an openly gay couple there, he says that overall his experience has been “not bad.” Being insulated in the Blue Island that is the university and the fairly liberal city of Fayetteville, he’s been surprised at the new laws. “Quite frankly I was shocked that we lost the referendum,” he says. “I really expected the ordinance to stick.”
The legislature picked up the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and another law that would prevent the kinds of local ordinances that had been overturned in Fayetteville. “It’s really disheartening,” he says.
DiLoreto is out, but he worries about some of the younger people in the state. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a college student here and gay, because there’s not a large presence,” he says. “I do have a great bit of empathy for them.” He volunteers for a suicide prevention service, and has talked them through the struggles. “The cruelty that you see—you see it, it’s everywhere—but it’s pretty prominent in this part of the country. My heart breaks for them.”
If there’s a silver lining, it’s how big the backlash against it has been, and how it’s brought gay-rights supporters out to speak against it.