By ANDREW DeMILLO
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – An opponent of same-sex marriage who once worried that children would be stigmatized if raised by gay parents, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe is the unlikeliest of champions for gay rights.
But Beebe’s appearance before the Stonewall Democratic Caucus this week counts at least as a symbolic step forward for gay rights advocates, one of many they’ve had to settle for in what remains a deeply conservative southern state.
From the state Supreme Court overturning a ban on unmarried foster and adoptive parents to bullying legislation that includes sexual orientation, gay rights advocates have seen mild success on some issues in Arkansas. Strong opposition to gay marriage and a recent Republican wave in the traditionally Democratic state mean more dramatic steps are unlikely anytime soon.
Given the state’s conservative leanings and voters’ support of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, it’s hard to measure progress for gay rights advocates, said Hendrix College political science professor Jay Barth.
“In a place as conservative as Arkansas, the status quo is–somewhat counter-intuitively–‘progress’ when compared to the anti-gay actions taken in states surrounding Arkansas,” said Barth, who is openly gay and has been involved with the Stonewall caucus.
Though Barth says Beebe deserves credit for this environment, the second-term governor has shied away from most controversial issues and hasn’t been particularly outspoken on gay rights. The governor’s most high-profile exchange with the caucus came in 2006, when his campaign returned a check from the organization.
The leader of the group later withdrew its endorsement of Beebe, claiming members of the caucus felt misled by the governor after he said he would support efforts to ban gays from becoming foster parents. The comments came months after the state Supreme Court overturned a state policy banning gay foster parents.
“The best interest of the child, in my opinion, is not to support gay foster parents,” Beebe said a month before his election.
“It’s an issue of what’s in the best interest of the child and what children go through in today’s society, including but not limited to stigma,” Beebe said then.
That position, however, has changed during Beebe’s time in office. He opposed legislation in 2007 that would have banned unmarried couples from adopting or fostering children, saying it went too far with its adoption restriction. He backed off his support of a foster care restriction the following year, and opposed an initiated act banning unmarried adoptive or foster parents.
“I’m not backing away from the ultimate test, which is still what’s in the best interest of the child,” Beebe said in 2008. “Now the question then becomes: Is the best interest of the child in foster care best handled by a blanket policy prohibiting it or by a case-by-case situation? Particularly in the light of the fact that we’ve got a problem with the number of foster families.”
When the state Supreme Court this year overturned the ban, Beebe was among the first to praise the unanimous ruling.
The ruling is among a handful of small victories that also includes a state law that includes sexual orientation in anti-bullying policies for public school students that Beebe signed into law.
The lack of dramatic progress reflects a state that isn’t ready for far-reaching change. The University of Arkansas’ annual Arkansas Poll last year showed that only 19 percent of very likely voters believed gay couples should be allowed to legally marry and 30 percent supporting civil unions. Forty-nine percent said there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship.
Among other questions, 53 percent of very likely voters supported allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military.
For his part, Beebe is playing down the appearance before the group and says he’s not going there with a plan to focus on gay rights in particular.
“I talk to everybody,” Beebe said last week. “If they ask to meet, I’m going to listen. I’ll answer whatever questions they have.”
Eric McDaniel, Stonewall’s president, said he sees Beebe’s opposition to the foster and adoption ban along with the anti-bullying law as signs of progress. He acknowledged that he’d like to see more progress, but said he has to weigh that against having someone he clearly sees an ally in the governor’s mansion.
“I don’t expect him to push too much for things too quickly,” McDaniel said.