LITTLE ROCK -- A bill that would criminalize transgender people using restrooms that match their gender identity won initial approval in the Arkansas Legislature on Tuesday, introducing a restriction critics said would be the most extreme in the country.
The bill approved by the majority-Republican Senate on a 19-7 vote would 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 bill now heads to the majority-GOP House.
The legislation goes even further than a North Carolina bathroom law that was enacted in 2016 and later repealed following widespread boycotts and protests. That law did not include any criminal penalties.
"What this is is an attack on the continued existence in public of transgender people, and the criminalization of being transgender in public," said Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign.
The bill comes amidst a flood of bills targeting transgender people, and increasingly hostile rhetoric against trans people in statehouses. So far this year, at least 155 bills targeting trans people's rights have been introduced, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Republican Sen. John Payton, the Arkansas bill's sponsor, called the measure narrowly crafted since it would only apply when minors are present and acknowledged it would be difficult to prosecute someone for violating the restriction.
"I just don't see this as being the bill that stops people from going into the wrong bathroom," Payton said before the vote. "Hopefully it just limits it to when children are present."
But Sen. Joshua Bryant, the only Republican who voted against the bill, said the measure would allow someone to be prosecuted regardless of their intent. He compared it to charging someone with armed robbery if they took a concealed handgun into a building where it's not allowed.
Bryant also noted that the bill would also apply to a transgender person who's undergone complete gender affirming surgery.
"I may not understand why they did it, I may not agree with why they did it but it was their decision as an adult," Bryant said.
The proposal narrowly won approval in the 35-member Senate, with several Republican lawmakers not voting on the measure another GOP senator voting "present" -- which has the same effect as voting no.
Despite the backlash over North Carolina's now-repealed bathroom bill, there has been a resurgence of similar restrictions proposed by GOP lawmakers. At least 17 bills related to who can use bathrooms have been introduced in 11 states so far this year.
Another bill pending in the Arkansas Legislature would prevent transgender people at public schools from using bathrooms that match their gender identity. Similar laws have been enacted in Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Lawsuits have been filed challenging the Oklahoma and Tennessee restrictions.
There are some exemptions in the bill approved by the Senate on Tuesday, including for parents and guardians accompanying children under the age of 7.
Even with that exemption, the bill would pose a difficult choice for transgender activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and her partner Beck Major, who is also transgender. The Little Rock couple have a two-year-old son and would eventually have to decide whether to send him into public restrooms alone rather than accompany him and risk being charged under the law.
"Those are two horrible choices for a parent to make," Beck Major said. "What choice would you make?"
The legislation also worries Kathy Brown-Nichols, of Arkansas, who describes herself as a butch lesbian and said she's already regularly harassed and questioned when she uses the women's restroom in public because of her appearance. Brown-Nichols said she's worried that harassment would only increase if the proposed restriction becomes law.
"They are putting a big bullseye on people that are different," she said.