Kyle Smith is the sort of civic-minded person who spends an entire summer vacation volunteering around the clock for the cause he cares about.
A 10th-grade geometry teacher who was partially raised and still resides in the small Arkansas city of Fayetteville, Smith led an effort last year to pass a local ordinance that would bar discrimination against LGBTQ people in housing, employment, and public accommodations.
Amid the sticky heat of a Southern summer, he and his team at For Fayetteville, a grassroots collective of progressive city residents, licked hundreds of envelopes and knocked on hundreds of doors. They developed a social-media strategy and recorded radio spots. They collected signatures at the Saturday farmers’ market and spoke to clergy and community groups and the local chamber of commerce.
They sought to uproot the most material forms of homophobic and transphobic bigotry, to create options for queer people in Fayetteville.
“This is my town, I grew up here, and I want to make sure that the students and kids growing up today see the town as welcoming,” he says. “I want to make sure that they can stay here and don’t have to run away to find what they are looking for.”
When voting day arrived last September, it delivered victory.
“We threw a big party at the campaign office that night,” Smith says. “The next morning, everyone went back to their day jobs.”
The celebration was short-lived, however.
One year earlier, as nondiscrimination ordinances were popping up all around the country, the state legislature established a law, Act 137, that effectively prevented city officials from passing new civil-rights protections for their LGBTQ constituents. The Arkansas Attorney General, Leslie Rutledge, a Republican insider and Mike Huckabee acolyte, used Act 137 to take Fayetteville and its new ordinance all the way to the state Supreme Court. She means to undo the city’s accomplishment.
“It is almost vengeful,” says Smith, who anticipated the ongoing legal challenge from the start. “It is not only frustrating, residents here in town get the feeling it’s personal, too.”
State officials, its seems, want to punish Fayetteville, a bustling university town, for its welcoming political values and liberal reputation. But the city’s struggle is not an isolated case. Though it’s little consolation, Fayetteville is among dozens of cities facing an overbearing antiprogressive backlash against their attempts to expand opportunity, fight discrimination, and demand justice for their residents.