Same-sex marriages are happening in Little Rock, Arkansas, the city of my birth. I’m sort of surprised by how surreal I find the situation. After a circuit court judge issued a late afternoon ruling on Friday striking Arkansas’s marriage ban, couples were able to marry in Eureka Springs in one of the few counties open for business on Saturdays. Today licenses were also granted in Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas, very close to the Wal-Mart headquarters. From the AP:
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – Dozens of gay couples, some of whom waited in line overnight, received licenses to marry from county clerks Monday, while lawyers for the state of Arkansas asked its highest court to suspend an order gutting a constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage.
“When we heard the news in Arkansas, we had to jump in the car to get here,” 51-year-old Shelly Butler of Dallas said shortly before receiving the first license in Little Rock, the state’s largest city. Butler met her partner, 48-year-old Susan Barr, at Southern Arkansas University in 1985. They arrived at the courthouse at 6:30 a.m. and were allowed to go to the front of the line because Butler has muscular dystrophy and is in a wheelchair.
“I am just in shock, I think. You go from being so private and hidden to such a public display of commitment. It’s just so nice,” Barr said.
The state attorney general will appeal the ruling, though he personally supports marriage equality. Though I find it surreal, I’m not surprised to see the first Southern marriage ban fall in Arkansas. Those unfamiliar with the South might be tempted to see the region as simply a huge, deep sea of red, but the truth is much more complicated. Arkansas, after all, is the state that gave us the Clintons, and the state didn’t turn red in presidential elections until they were gone. There’s a strong populist strain in the state, and Little Rock and Fayetteville are fairly progressive places. Right now the GOP is confounded by the fact that Democratic Senator Mark Pryor is leading by double digits in some polls, as they have been assuming that any Democratic seat in a red state is up for grabs. Arkansas is not Mississippi, nor is it Tennessee or Louisiana, and it has little in common with the neighbors on its west side. Arkansas truly is a place unto itself. NPR has published the first of a two-part series looking at the mountains of Arkansas and southern Missouri, the Ozarks, a region that both contains progressive Eureka Springs and also Marionville, Missouri, home of Frazier Glenn Cross, the white supremacist suspect in the attacks on Jewish institutions in Kansas City:
Just 60 miles south of Marionville, there’s a town similar in heritage but culturally on a different planet. One of the most infamous anti-Semites in American history, Gerald L.K. Smith, retired to Eureka Springs, Ark., 50 years ago, erected a gigantic seven-story statue of Jesus and established an outdoor theatrical extravaganza depicting Christ’s last days.
Now, the great Passion Play is scrubbed of its original anti-Semitic message. And the big Jesus gazes over a town Smith would probably hate. Longtime resident Michael Walsh says you just can’t miss the gay culture here.
“There are rainbow flags outside of a lot of the gay-owned shops. A lot of us are movers and shakers in town,” Walsh says.
The town boasts three gay pride weekends annually and a vibrant tourist economy. It’s about the same size as Marionville and just about as white, but Walsh says in Eureka Springs, old ways and new culture coexist.
The article talks about a general live and let live ethic in the Ozarks, and I would argue that it exists across the entire state. Sure, there are wildly conservative Arkansans who will weep and gnash their teeth over this, and they’ll try to prolong permanent equality as long as they can, but I suspect that once gay couples getting married in Little Rock and Fayetteville is no longer a new thing, that most Arkansans will shrug their shoulders and move on with their lives, the marriage ban they voted for a distant flicker of a memory.