Arkansas bathroom bill condemned as too extreme is revamped

Mar 28, 2023, 5:14 PM

Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, addresses the House Committee on Judiciary about SB270 at the Arkansas...

Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, addresses the House Committee on Judiciary about SB270 at the Arkansas State Capitol, in Little Rock, Ark., Tuesday, March 28, 2023. (Colin Murphey/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP)

(Colin Murphey/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An North Carolina law that was repealed after widespread boycotts was revamped Tuesday following complaints from members of the transgender community and their families that it would criminalize trans people simply for using public restrooms.

The House Judiciary Committee endorsed the proposal to allow someone to be charged with misdemeanor sexual indecency with a child if they use a public restroom or changing room of the opposite sex when a minor is present. The majority-GOP panel advanced the measure after it was amended to make it a crime only if the person enters the restroom “for the purpose of arousing or gratifying a sexual desire.” The proposal now heads to the full House for a vote as early as Wednesday.

The Republican lawmaker behind the bill said he was OK with the latest version, saying his intent wasn’t to target transgender people with the bathroom restriction.

“I think this new language in the bill probably helps guide it more directly toward what we’re trying to accomplish, and that’s bad actors that are in there for sexual gratification to misbehave,” Republican Sen. John Payton said after the vote.

The change followed hours of testimony from members of the trans community, family members and other opponents who said the restriction would further marginalize and threaten transgender people who have been targeted by several bills in this year’s session.

“This bill is such an overreach that it would have an individual whose legal documentation and physical anatomy matches the sign on the door be barred from entering the restroom,” said Evelyn Rios Stafford, a member of Washington County’s quorum court and a transgender woman, told the committee during the hearing.

The panel heard from transgender people worried about the potential confrontations they could face if they complied with the law.

“How would you react to me exiting a gendered facility with your wife or your daughter?” Ethan Avanzino, a transgender man, asked the panel. “We all know that’s absurd.”

The original version of the bill went further than a bathroom law North Carolina enacted in 2016 and repealed a year later following widespread boycotts and protests. That law did not include any criminal penalties.

The committee’s vote comes a week after Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed legislation prohibiting transgender people at public schools from using the restroom that aligns with their gender identity. The law, which takes effect later this summer, makes Arkansas the fourth state to enact such a restriction.

Proposals to restrict transgender people using the restroom of their choice have seen a resurgence this year, six years after North Carolina repealed its bathroom law. More than two dozen bathroom bills have been filed in 17 states this year.

Opponents of the original version of the bill said the new version addresses many of their concerns that the prohibition would be used to prosecute transgender people for using restrooms that match their gender identity.

“That vastly changes the meaning because there’s an actual intent included in this, whereas before it was just your mere presence in the restroom,” Democratic Rep. Ashley Hudson said after the vote.

But some advocates said they were still opposed to the bill, even with the revamp.

“We are grateful that our legislators listened to our testimonies and worked to refine the bill, but we want to emphasize that this bill should not pass as it is clearly targeting trans people,” Intransitive, a support and advocacy group for transgender people in Arkansas, said in a statement.

The amendment was nearly identical to language suggested by Aaron Jennen, whose teenage daughter is transgender and is among the families challenging Arkansas’ ban on gender affirming care for minors. A federal judge has blocked that law’s enforcement and is considering whether to strike it down as unconstitutional.

Jennen described to lawmakers how his daughter is looking at where to go to college, but doesn’t think it’s safe to stay in Arkansas because of the laws in recent years affecting transgender people.

“We’re facing the likely situation of our daughter moving away to where she knows no one but she’s not targeted by her government as a criminal simply for being who she is,” Jennen said.

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Arkansas bathroom bill condemned as too extreme is revamped