Irony in the Arkansas General Assembly

The walk from her desk to the well of the House took the gentlewoman from West Memphis nine seconds, not enough time to tinker yet again with the remarks she had drafted the weekend previous, then edited, and re-edited. In a legislature wherein oratory, or what passes for it, is almost invariably extemporaneous, her thoughts were too carefully considered, the nouns and adverbs chosen with too much regard for the people most affected, to chance a veer from the precise.

Rep. Deborah Ferguson, a first-term Democrat, removed her glasses, took a deep breath, and glanced at her sheet of yellow paper. To her if too few others, the irony of the moment was inescapable. It bordered on the ludicrous.

Irony is not an occasional visitor to the Arkansas General Assembly but in this session it presides over both chambers and chairs all the committees. It drips from the ceiling, seeps from the walls, oozes from the carpets, irony.

In the minutes before Ferguson stepped to its dais the chamber had applauded heartily House Resolution 1038, which celebrated an oral history project by students at Little Rock Central High, who documented “historic and current civil rights struggles” to provide “insights on perception, prejudice and acceptance.” The students’ work was invaluable in “teaching tolerance, promoting acceptance, fostering unity in the community and building personal relationships based enriched by equity and diversity.”

Ferguson had, naturally, supported HR1038.

Now she would speak against H HR1049.

The resolution, by Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, emphasized the House’s support of Amendment 83 to the state Constitution. Ratified a dozen years earlier at the polls, the amendment banned gay marriage in Arkansas and refused legal recognition of same-sex marriages performed lawfully in other states.

“With liberty and justice for all,” Ferguson began. Already her voice was trembling. “We say that every day. We don’t say ‘some,’ we say ‘all.’”

All of us, Ferguson said, had gay friends or co-workers. For too long she had watched too many of them struggle for acceptance, for their rights. “This resolution is hurtful to our sons, our daughters and an entire community who hasn’t chosen to be gay. It says we do not value them as equal citizens. What are the consequences of intolerance? What are the consequences of saying we value some lives less?”

“The resolution is intentionally timely,” Ferguson said, referring to the oral arguments, concluded at the U.S. Supreme Court earlier that very day, supporting marriage equality. But: “I see it as timely for a different reason than Rep. Dotson.”

It was, Ferguson continued, an opportunity for the Land of Opportunity, which “has too many times stood on the wrong side of history, not just the losing side but the wrong side.” She offered some examples:

One-hundred-fifty years ago the House had endorsed slavery and voted to expel all free African-Americans.

A century ago the House sneered at womens’ suffrage.

Fifty years ago it passed one segregation law after another, “and stood in the doorway of Central High School,” the very institution emblematic of the very same movement that the House, not five minutes earlier, had honored.

And only a decade ago, notwithstanding history’s already apparent trajectory, the House had sent Amendment 83 to the ballot.

“Let’s not stand on the wrong side of history today,” Ferguson implored. With a final plea for “love and tolerance and understanding,” she was done.

Two colleagues with large gay constituencies would join Ferguson in speaking against HR1049 but neither could match her passion; one of them had barely begun before he excused himself and left the floor, overcome.

Dotson’s neighbor, Rep. Justin Harris, R-Springdale, spoke for 1049. Assuring his colleagues he had no desire to “speak hate” or “spread vicious speech” and conceding that the country was trending in the opposite direction, Harris intoned that Arkansas had got it right with Amendment 83, that the president from Arkansas had got it right when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act, that since Arkansas had very nearly the nation’s highest divorce rate it ought to do whatever it could to “protect” marriage, that the members’ grandchildren someday would ask how they voted that day, that Arkansas should send the Supreme Court a message.

The vote was never in doubt. No matter that indeed the country plainly was moving toward acceptance, that the president from Arkansas had since disavowed the bill he signed, that the divorce rate among Arkansas heterosexuals was so high gays could scarcely drive it higher, and that the members’ grandchildren were far more likely to ask what all the fuss had been about, assuming they asked anything. And that similar “messages” from Arkansas to the Supreme Court came back marked “Return to Sender.”

It was a voice vote, and Ferguson was mildly but pleasantly surprised by the number heard against 1049. She was content being on the losing side, resolved to let history judge whether she had been on the right side.

• • •

Steve Barnes is native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.