by Jack Dunn, Communications & Operations Associate
On August 19th, the City Council of Fayetteville, Arkansas, was set to consider a new law that will protect citizens from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic background, marital status or veteran status.
In what is becoming unsurprising news, the bill prompted fierce opposition from conservatives, as well as Michelle Duggar (of ‘19 Kids and Counting’ fame), who claimed that the bill will not only expose children to sexual predators, but will somehow infringe on religious liberty, and force parents to explain topless female swimmers to their children at public swimming pools. Dugger also went as far as to record a robo-call to campaign against the bill. More surprising, however, was the moving City Council meeting that followed, lasting almost 10 hours, as trans residents took turns to testify on their experience of discrimination and harassment. In the early hours, Mayor Lioneld Jordan passionately concluded that he had seen people excluded from the “table of equality” for too long, and that it was time for them to “have a seat”. At 3.20am, when the vote was called, the ordinance won 6-2.
The Reason for the Rabbit
At the city council meeting, there were six transgender people that spoke. Anyone that was in favor of passing the ordinance was encouraged to wear red. Five of those people took Opal the rabbit with them. They spaced themselves out among the eighty or so people. When they spoke, they put Opal on the podium in front of them. When they were done taking, they passed Opal to the next person in their group. EmJae, who we interview below, was the last to speak, and told the following story:
You may have noticed this small rabbit in a red shirt up here with a few of us, and wondered ‘What’s up with this bunny?’. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Opal. Opal, here, has become somewhat of a mascot for the Fayetteville transgender community today.
Fayetteville has a large population of rabbits right here in the city limits. They can be found in yards and in the bushes in many of our public green spaces, finding a way to both survive and thrive in our suburban atmosphere. Rabbits in nature are skittish creatures, with keen senses that alert them to approaching predators. Rabbits live their lives in fear. Fear of hawks, owls, coyotes, dogs, and even humans. Rabbits are so accustomed to living in fear, that their bodies have adapted to it, evolving strong hind legs for running away, and long ears for increased awareness of approaching predators.
The transgender community of Fayetteville understands this sense of lifelong fear all too well. Fear of losing our homes or jobs, and now that so many contrasting viewpoints about discrimination have come out recently, many of us fear bodily harm and maybe even death, for something as simple as using the restroom or walking down the street. Recent estimates suggest that there are approximately fifty transgender people living and working in the Fayetteville area, yet only a small number were willing to take the risk of being seen here today.
For us, Opal represents not only the constant state of fear, but also the ability to survive and thrive, despite the threats we feel we face. Opal has come here today, so that no one has to stand up here alone. I am a whole person, and so is she.
In Their Words…
We got in touch with some of the brave speakers at the City Council Meeting, to ask them about their experiences and what their thoughts were for the future of Fayetteville.
Tell me a little about yourself
Noah: I’m a trans guy with a passion for social justice, especially as it relates to the LGBT community and religion. I graduated from Fayetteville High School, then moved away for over a decade, and just moved back last year.
EmJae: My name is EmJae Manning. I’m 39, and have lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas pretty much my whole life. I decided I wanted to transition about fifteen years ago, but at the time there was nothing to be found. That, coupled with being declared 100% disabled, meant I made the decision to stay in the closet until about two years ago.
Kate: I am originally from New Orleans, but I have been a Fayetteville resident off and on for almost twenty years. I am an artist and a web developer. I began my transition about a year and a half ago, but have only been full time since the first of this year. Since then, I have been increasingly getting involved and giving back to our wonderful community. Just last month, I was one of many to make it to DC for Transgender Lobby Day. It was a wonderful experience, and I am proud to say that we brought back that knowledge and drive to our community.
How did you hear about what was going on?
EmJae: I work for the NWA Center for Equality, so from the very beginning, when they brought the public in, I was a part of it.
Kate: I am very involved in the transgender community and have been very fortunate to have a lot of support from the NWA Center for Equality. I guess that I have friends in the right places!
What does this ruling mean to you?
Noah: Honestly, the main thing this ordinance means to me is that I won’t worry about legal repercussions for using the bathroom. Maybe I’m cynical, but I’m not convinced the ordinance will be super effective in preventing employment discrimination. As a statement of intent, though, it makes me feel a lot more at ease in Fayetteville.
EmJae: It means that when I go to change my name on my lease, I don’t have to worry about being evicted, or at least I have a recourse if I do, which is often a very real possibility. As for how it will affect my life; sadly I feel like I, and the other trans people that spoke, will have a target on our backs. At least for a while.
Kate: Until now I had no one to help when discrimination happens (except for ears to rant into and shoulders to cry on). This ruling means that I will now have someone to turn to for help. I will not feel quite so alone now.
How does it make you feel to have your civil rights be voted on?
EmJae: [chuckles] Better late than never!
Kate: It makes me feel that someone with the power to do something actually cares about their community. It felt great to have these people listen to my story. And it felt great to help others tell their stories.
What do you want people to know about yourself and transgender people in general?
Noah: What our opponents seem to fail to see is that transgender people are pretty much normal people, and that however scared someone may be of us, we’re probably more scared of them. I mean, when I use men’s bathrooms and men’s locker rooms, I’m not peeking at anybody else; I’m just making sure no one is peeking at me!
EmJae: I am a whole person! We work. We have families. We get sick and need medical care. We have fun out at the lake. We use the bathroom. Just like every other human being on the planet. We are just people, who happen to also be transgender.
Kate: I have always been an introvert. However, since transitioning, I am finally learning to let go; to be myself. This has surprised me, as I never thought I would be as bold as I have become. I would want others to know that we are human too. And that we all come in all shapes, sizes, colors, personalities, etc. Get to know a transgender person and you, too, will realize that we like Italian food too! We are whole people.
What did it feel like to give testimony at the council meeting last night?
EmJae: All of us were scared. I myself was in the midst of a whole body tremor from my Parkinson’s. That is where Opal was vital. She volunteered to go up with every trans person that would speak, so they didn’t have to go alone. There were five of us that took her up to the podium. I, being her caretaker, was one of the last to speak in our group. I explained why she was there. I would like to have “the reason for the rabbit” echoed as far and wide as it will go.
Kate: It felt scary, but worth it. There was a lot of publicity and, though I am loud and proud, I am still cautious where I feel it is important to be so. However, I really couldn’t help but to share my thoughts on the ordinance. There was just so much that needed to be said.
How did you feel when the vote was so strongly on our side?
EmJae: To be honest, I wasn’t too worried that the city council would pass it.
Kate: It felt pretty amazing. This ordinance is important for so many people, not just the LGBT community. Our city will be stronger because of it, and I feel safer knowing that my city’s officials care about their people.
Who were the key players in educating the city council members? Who deserves our kudos?
Noah: I don’t know about the city council, but Kate has really stepped up into a leadership role in the trans community over the past few months. She’s done event coordinating, organizing, and planning for a whole bunch of things, including this event. The trans presence at the city council meeting wasn’t random. I think I was the only one who hadn’t decided whether to speak and what to say in advance.
EmJae: ALL the city council deserves kudos. Even the ones that voted against it. This is democracy, and that means there is a balance. These people are in these positions for a reason, they were elected by the people in their ward, to represent the people of their ward.
Kate: I don’t know all the personal connections between the city council and the LGBT community, but I have to give some credit to our Mayor for his leadership and compassion.
What has been the most powerful source of support for you whilst you’ve lived there?
Noah: My biggest source of support is my mom, who also spoke last night. My family is the reason that I moved back to Fayetteville. For a long time I envied kids I saw whose parents stood with them publicly, and now I get to be that guy. It’s pretty amazing.
EmJae: The NWA Center for Equality. My friends-family. Even some of my family-family!
Kate: The NWA Center for Equality hosts our support group and supports our transgender specific events. Also, I have to say the local transgender community here is very strong, we are all friends, we all support each other.
What is it like to live in Fayetteville for trans people? Tell us a little bit about your town.
Noah: The fact that this ordinance passed by a wide margin, and the number of supporters that showed up, should tell you something about Fayetteville. For the most part, it’s an accepting place (although I have the advantage of passing really well; some of the trans women in the area have had bad experiences – I’m sorry more of those stories didn’t get shared last night, either because people didn’t feel safe there or because of a lack of time). The trans community here is pretty tight, and it draws in trans people from less accepting areas, so it’s a growing community. I’d been in Ann Arbor for eight years, and I was a little surprised by the lack of resources when I got here, particularly medical resources. A lot of people are traveling an hour or more to see a trans-friendly doctor. Some are going through transition without a doctor. I’ve been able to find a local doctor who is supportive (and takes my insurance), and there are a growing number of therapists in the area who will work with trans people, so we’re making progress. Not surprisingly, there’s also a significant problem with un- and under-employment, and with homelessness. The community really tries to support each other as much as possible, but we all have limited resources.
EmJae: We have a pretty tolerant town overall. The people that actually live in Fayetteville are welcoming and tolerant. It’s the smaller towns that surround Fayetteville that hold most of the people that don’t understand, or don’t want to.
Kate: Fayetteville is a generally compassionate place and has been very kind to me. But I think it’s because I have been very fortunate with a speedy transition and working from home. I also try to stay within the safe zones as much as possible. This doesn’t stop the fear. I still know that without this ordinance I could quickly be out of a job and out of a home. Many of my friends have had a wide range of problems in Fayetteville as any other place. Each of us has our own personal stories, but the similarities can be haunting. Employment and housing are two areas of discrimination that definitely need to be addressed here.