Demonstrators speak against bathroom bill on steps of the Arkansas Capitol

A demonstrator holds up a sign during a march to mark International Transgender Day of Visibility in Lisbon, March 31, 2022. At least 32 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the United States in 2022, the Human Rights Campaign announced Wednesday, Nov. 16, in its annual report ahead of Transgender Day of Remembrance on Sunday, Nov. 20. (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

More than 50 transgender rights advocates gathered in front of the Arkansas Capitol on Friday to protest a bill that aims to make it a crime for a person to knowingly remain in a bathroom of the opposite sex while a minor is present.

Protesters sang, heard from speakers and demonstrated against Senate Bill 270, which some opponents have said would create the most extreme anti-transgender law in America if enacted. At one point, demonstrators placed pieces of toilet paper bearing photos of lawmakers in a wastebasket decorated as a toilet to express their opposition.

“What do we do with transphobia,” asked Tien Estell, advocacy coordinator for Intransitive Arkansas, while leading a chant.

“Flush it down,” responded the crowd.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, has said the measure is needed to protect children. Payton told the Senate on Wednesday he considers the legislation to be a compromise and noted it would cover “transgender” and “heterosexual” people.

“The bottom line is this bill does not make it illegal for somebody to use the wrong bathroom if it does not match up with their sex unless there is a child present,” he said.

Sarah Everett, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, told demonstrators Friday that her organization would keep up its opposition to the bill.

“We at the ACLU of Arkansas with all of you will do everything in our power to prevent this from becoming law and, if it does, to prevent it from taking effect,” she said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

While speaking against the bill during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this week, Everett said no other state has a criminal ban against transgender people using restrooms. Five people spoke against the bill and one testified in favor of it during the meeting.

After the panel advanced the legislation, Payton pulled it from the Senate floor Wednesday to address a drafting error. The bill is scheduled to reappear in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

Ally Thomlinson, with Disability Rights Arkansas, urged demonstrators to participate in the legislative process.

“You are the experts on the trans experience,” Thomlinson said.

Payton’s bill would generally criminalize instances where a person 18 or older knowingly “enters into and remains in a public changing facility that is assigned to persons of the opposite sex while knowing a minor of the opposite sex is present in the public changing facility.”

It includes exemptions for parents accompanying minors, people rendering medical assistance, law enforcement officials accompanying a person in their custody and people authorized to maintain and inspect facilities.

Along with Payton’s bill, lawmakers have reviewed at least one other bill which opponents say could affect bathroom access for transgender people.

House Bill 1156, by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, would require public schools and open enrollment public charter schools to designate multiple occupancy restrooms for the exclusive use of either the male or female sex.

Bentley’s bill was pulled from the Senate floor earlier this month to allow for amendment. It has since been referred to the Senate Committee on Education.

The American Civil Liberties Union is tracking at least six pieces of legislation in other states which could impact access to facilities including public restrooms and locker rooms, according to the organization’s website.

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