by Tess Vrbin, Arkansas Advocate
Activists from Conway will speak against a bill before the House Education Committee on Thursday, sharing their experience with the Conway School District’s policy that restricts children’s access to bathrooms and changing areas based on their gender assigned at birth.
House Bill 1156, filed Tuesday, would apply to multiple-occupancy restrooms and locker rooms, as well as rooms for students on overnight trips. Public schools that do not comply with this policy would lose 5% of their state funding.
The bill drew immediate attention from pro-LGBTQ entities, calling it a vehicle for anti-transgender bigotry.
Conway’s school board unanimously approved the bathroom restrictions in October. Protesters waving transgender pride flags and repeatedly chanting “shame” were subsequently escorted out of the board meeting.
Since then, students and families in Conway have already experienced the impact of HB 1156 if it becomes law, said Stephanie Gray, board president of the Faulkner County Coalition for Social Justice.
“We’re seeing students that are terrified of using the bathroom,” Gray said. “We’re seeing students that refuse to go to school [and] students that are being bullied by teachers and administrators. We’re seeing students that can’t focus in class because our school district is more concerned about who’s using bathrooms than how to actually promote a great education, and I think that’s just going to be replicated on a statewide level if this bill passes.”
Pro-LGBTQ activists mentioned the bill at a Thursday rally on the Capitol steps, during a demonstration against a Senate bill that would restrict drag performances similarly to pornography, strip clubs and other sexually explicit content and activities.
The bill’s language pertaining to both clothing and performance is broad enough to criminalize transgender and nonbinary Arkansans simply for expressing themselves, opponents of the bill said at both the protest and an earlier Senate committee hearing. The committee passed the bill, sending it on to the Senate.
“In Arkansas we’ve got childhood poverty, and [legislators] are talking about messing with our art,” Eric Reece, state director of the Human Rights Campaign, said during the rally.
He later brought up HB 1156 and elicited boos from the crowd.
Gray agreed with Reece that the Legislature should focus on other things, especially within the realm of education since Arkansas is one of the lowest-ranked states in educational proficiency.
“We’re focusing on the wrong things,” Gray said. “We’re not focused on educating our children. We’re focused on controlling children that don’t fit within the norm of what the Legislature deems right and just.”
Past transgender legislation
State Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville), the sponsor of HB 1156, said she introduced the bill at the urging of schools in her district, which is made up of Perry County and parts of Faulkner, Saline and Yell counties.
She also said the bill aims to protect students with gender dysphoria from being the targets of violence.
“I work very closely with my superintendents, and they’re very concerned about bullying,” Bentley said. “Bathrooms are a place where everybody gets bullied, so they were concerned, especially about transgender students getting bullied if they go into a particular bathroom. They feel it’s a very good way to keep all the children safe.”
A similar bill in Oklahoma that became law last year was the source of the language in HB 1156, Bentley said. Three transgender students filed a federal lawsuit against Oklahoma’s bill in September 2022.
Bentley previously sponsored what is now the Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act, which prohibits physicians from providing “gender transition” treatments like hormones, puberty blockers and surgeries to those under age 18. The Legislature overrode then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s veto to pass the law in May 2021.
Four transgender Arkansas minors, their families, and two physicians who provide gender-affirming care to youth challenged the SAFE Act in court. The trial was the first in the U.S. over such a ban.
U.S. District Judge James Moody heard the trial in late 2022 and has yet to issue a verdict. Moody previously prohibited enforcement of the law in July 2021, and a higher court upheld the injunction.
Additionally, Bentley sponsored a 2021 bill that would have required public school employees to address students only by the name and sex designated on the student’s birth certificate. The bill passed the House and later died in the Senate Education Committee.
Opponents of the bill said it could protect teachers who intentionally misgender their transgender students. Bentley acknowledged this could be the case but also claimed students changing their names between classes was “a real issue.”
The bill’s Senate sponsor was Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch), who is sponsoring this year’s bill to regulate drag performances.
“Agenda” and enforcement
Bentley said she will spend this year’s legislative session “pushing back” against what she sees as “an agenda to hurt our children” and threats to “a wholesome, free society.”
She cited gender dysphoria in children as an example of Arkansas failing to protect them from “sexual things.”
Stubblefield expressed similar opinions Thursday when he told the Senate City, County and Local Affairs Committee that drag performances are “scaring our children and stealing their innocence.”
Gray said the language of legislation like HB 1156 resembles racial segregation because it isolates one group of people in order to make another group feel comfortable.
“I think we’re fighting a similar fight now, where we have our representatives and senators who are scared, who do not understand gender dysphoria [or] the plight of these trans students,” Gray said.
“In order to make their children, their grandchildren and folks they know that are cisgender more comfortable, we’re sacrificing the choice and the ability for a trans student to decide where they want to go to the bathroom or who they want to stay with on overnight trips.”
Bentley said Friday that she expects HB 1156 to be upheld if challenged in court.
“There’s nothing unconstitutional about taking care of kids,” she said.
But Gray said the potential impact of the bill is more important than the intent behind it.
“Ultimately, what matters is how these students feel and how this is actually implemented into our districts,” Gray said.
The bill leaves discipline for violating the policy up to individual schools. Gray said this is potentially dangerous, based on past experience helping to create policies for governing bodies.
“Part of what makes a good policy is being very clear and very equitable in its enforcement,” Gray said. “What we’re seeing here, when you open the door for bad policy like this to be implemented, is that schools will use their own discretion to severely punish students, and what we’ve already seen here in Conway is proof of that.”
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