The Human Rights Campaign is releasing the results of a survey about the challenges and needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered residents. Last year, the organization gathered information from roughly 1,000 LGBT Arkansans across the state.
The Human Rights Campaign wanted some basic information about the lives of LGBT Arkansans: How are they involved in their communities? What type of challenges or discrimination do they feel they face in public settings or with their families?
“In the workplace we found about a quarter of people experience employment discrimination, about a third experience harassment at work. You know, when it comes to harassment or discrimination in a healthcare setting or at schools,” said Brad Clark of the HRC.
“There are some unique challenges that while LGBT people in Arkansas really want to participate in their communities, giving back to their communities, they face some significant obstacles when it comes to protection for themselves and for their families,” added Clark.
Tippi McCullough had been teaching high school English at Mount St. Mary Academy for 14 years. Her partner Barbara, who is a prosecuting attorney, volunteered as a track coach there. She says they kept their relationship quiet but had strong ties at the school. Last year they planned a trip to the Grand Canyon and decided to get married on a stop in New Mexico.
“We got married and about 45 minutes after I got married got a phone call from the school secretary telling me that if I had married Barbara I would be fired. Of course I had already done that. Later that day the Principal called me and told me I had violated the morality clause in my contract and I could resign or be fired,” said McCullough.
Today, McCullough is a teacher at Central High School and says her life is overall less stressful now that she and Barbara have fully come out.
"When I introduce Barbara I don't say this is Barbara, this is my friend Barbara or my roommate Barbara or any of that stuff. You know I'm 50 years old, it's really liberating to just say, this is my wife Barbara, and to work at a place that totally accepts our relationship."
The survey found that not only do many LGBT Arkansans say they experience discrimination at work, they also feel they face similar challenges at home and at school. Penelope Poppers runs Lucie's Place, a support organization for LGBT youth, particularly those who are homeless.
She says according to a recent study by the Williams Institute - a national think tank at UCLA Law School - its estimated 40% of the homeless youth population identifies as LGBT.
“If they are kicked out of their home and they’re getting harassed at school, they feel like they leave home they don’t feel like they can get any support and they just don’t feel like they have anything left so that feeling of loneliness and emptiness is very real in that situation,” said Poppers. Poppers says the kids often want to come out to be a positive influence on people around them, but many face heavy consequences.
Brad Clark of the HRC says when LGBT people come out it leads to social change. Most of the survey respondents say they are highly active in their communities. A third say they are people of faith. 53 percent volunteer and 60 percent donate to charity. Also, 57 percent of those ages 18 to 25 plan to raise children some day.
Andrea Zekis is a transgendered woman who founded the Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition. She says it’s important to keep developing an understanding of the needs of the local LGBT community before coming up with solutions.
“Before any kind of work can happen here in Arkansas, there needs to be outreach and meeting with those folks and having those conversations and understanding,” she said.
The HRC plans to open its Little Rock office by the fall. It's part of a three-year campaign to promote LGBT equality and push for new legal protections in three Southern states: Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi. The idea behind the effort is that people will be less likely to oppose expanded rights and acceptance if they meet and know more people who are LGBT.
Clark says the organization will focus its efforts here particularly on health access for transgendered people and workplace discrimination issues.