Raft of 'bathroom bills' fail, critics still vexed

Public restrooms. Wikimedia Commons.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Critics say 11 bills targeting Arkansas' LGBTQ community were filed in the recently ended legislative session, calling that a worrisome number.

"It was an unprecedented attack on the LGBTQ community in Arkansas," said Kendra Johnson, director of Human Rights Campaign Arkansas. Even though the next session is two years away, groups like HRC Arkansas and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas said it's important to continue educating people about the LGBTQ community as part of efforts to combat potentially harmful legislation.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson objected several times against so-called "bathroom bills" that seemingly target transgender people.

Republicans also control the House and the Senate in the Arkansas Legislature.

Among proposed bills was one from Republican Sen. Linda Collins-Smith that would have required every government building restroom or changing facility accessed simultaneously by multiple people to be designated for use by members of only one sex. It wouldn't have applied to private restrooms.

Hutchinson opposed, saying the state didn't need a bathroom bill similar to a North Carolina law that triggered wide criticism, boycotts and recently was replaced by a compromise. An Associated Press analysis found that North Carolina's law before the compromise would cost the state more than $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years.

President Donald Trump has said decisions on bathroom facilities use should be left to school and local officials. Trump revoked a directive from President Obama's administration advising schools to let transgender students use the facilities of their choice.

Collins-Smith introduced the Arkansas proposal after President Donald Trump revoked an Obama-era directive that instructed public schools to let transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms of their chosen gender.

The senator said her proposal was not like North Carolina's, adding it was needed to protect student privacy by preventing someone of the opposite sex from changing or showering in front of them. Collins-Smith dropped the bill in late March for further study so it can eventually be brought up again for consideration.

Another Republican lawmaker proposed expanding the state's indecent exposure law in a move opponents say would have criminalized transgender people's use of bathrooms. Rep. Bob Ballinger's proposal would have allowed for possible jail time and fines for those who expose their sex organs to someone of the opposite sex in public in a way that alarms the other person.

Ballinger said he didn't think his bill targeted transgender people.

But ACLU Arkansas legal director Holly Dickson said existing laws already address those who act with criminal intent in public restrooms.

"This bill is intimidating. It will chill transgender people's participation in public life," Dickson said of the bill, which made progress in the House but never reached a Senate committee vote.

A measure to ban people from changing their biological sex listed on birth certificates also was proposed this past session. In Arkansas, a transgender person currently must obtain a court order to amend their birth certificate.

Rep. Mickey Gates told a House panel that birth certificates have to reflect a person's genetic code, not how a person chooses to identify themselves.

"I don't think it's incumbent on government to recognize how somebody feels," Gates told The Associated Press. "There's nothing we can do to surgically alter someone's DNA."

That proposal advanced out of committee, but never made it for full House for consideration.

Rita Sklar of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas said that while none of the bills succeeded, they did bolster misinformation and harm. "They were successful in the sense that they were based on needless fear and prejudice," said Sklar, the ACLU state chapter's executive director.

Copyright 2017 The Gayly - 4/9/2017 @ 4:18 p.m. CDT