The Duggars Helped Overturn LGBTQ Civil Rights in Arkansas. They Still Have a TV Show.

In late January, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down a citywide ordinance in Fayetteville outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, and public accommodations. It was just the latest blow for activists in a battle that began four years ago.

[Photo: Michelle Duggar and Jim Bob Duggar speak at the Values Voter Summit.]
Days before the Fayetteville City Council approved the nondiscrimination ordinance, Michelle Duggar recorded a robocall warning voters that the proposal allowed “men to use women’s and girls’ restrooms, locker rooms, showers, sleeping areas and other areas that are designated for females only.” Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

The public may have forgotten about the Duggars, but Arkansas has not.

The family’s TLC reality show, Counting On, quietly debuted its ninth season last month. A spinoff of the once-popular 19 Kids and Counting, it was developed after reports broke that Josh Duggar, the oldest child of Jim Bob and Michelle, molested four of his 18 siblings as a teenager. TLC swiftly canceled 19 Kids and Counting in the aftermath of the controversy. While that show was a ratings smash that made the Duggars a household name, just under 1.5 million watched Counting On’s February 11 premiere to see fourth-oldest daughter Jinger Duggar prepare for motherhood.

But for residents of Fayetteville, the show’s return was an unwelcome reminder of its own troubled history with the embattled reality stars. Less than two weeks prior, the Arkansas Supreme Court had effectively struck down a citywide nondiscrimination ordinance in the college town of around 73,000. Ordinance 5781 outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, and public accommodations.

It was actually the second time the state’s highest bench ruled against Ordinance 5781. In 2017, the Arkansas Supreme Court claimed the Fayetteville ordinance violates Act 137, a state law forbidding local municipalities from extending civil rights protections to any group that has not been established as a protected class under statewide law. On January 31, the court effectively upheld its earlier decision by overturning a lower court injunction allowing the ordinance to remain on the books while LGBTQ advocates mounted a legal challenge to Act 137.

Representatives with the pro-ordinance group For Fayetteville filed an appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court to rehear the case. Justices have yet to respond to their petition.

Depending on the bench’s decision, the case could have implications for Conway, Eureka Springs, Hot Springs, Little Rock, Marvell, and North Little Rock, which also have nondiscrimination laws on the books; They have received no information from the Arkansas Supreme Court on how they stand to be affected. The Duggars could ultimately play an instrumental role in killing protections against discrimination for the estimated 79,000 LGBTQ adults who call Arkansas home.

As many in Fayetteville will tell you, one of the more painful things about the ongoing controversy is that the Duggars don’t even live in their town. Jim Bob and Michelle reside in a 7,000-foot compound across from a landfill in Tontitown, a small community on the outskirts of Fayetteville. They are one of Northwest Arkansas’ several prominent “Quiverfull” families, an evangelical movement that encourages followers to procreate as much as possible. Adherents of the ideology say the goal is to create an army of foot soldiers for Christ. They shun premarital sex and birth control.

Like many in the Quiverfull movement, the Duggar family regards LGBTQ people as committing a “sin.” Members of its ever-expanding clan have referred to homosexuality as a “worldview that rejects God’s truth,” “degrading to children,” and a “travesty.” Derick Dillard, husband of second-oldest daughter Jill Duggar Dillard, has referred to trans identity as a “myth” and compared gender-affirming surgeries to “genital mutilation.”

Days before the Fayetteville City Council approved the nondiscrimination ordinance, Michelle Duggar recorded a robocall warning voters that the proposal allowed “men to use women’s and girls’ restrooms, locker rooms, showers, sleeping areas and other areas that are designated for females only.”

“I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls,” the Duggar matriarch said at the time. “I doubt that Fayetteville parents would stand for a law that would endanger their daughters or allow them to be traumatized by a man joining them in their private space.”

City Councilmember Kyle Smith compared the August 2014 robocall to asking someone where they were the day of JFK’s assassination. If you’re at a party in Fayetteville and the subject of politics comes up, he claims that everyone wants to know: “Do you remember when you got that phone call from Michelle Duggar?”

“It’s still fresh in everybody’s minds because you see them at Sam’s Club once a week,” Smith told Rewire.News. “For us, it wasn’t this nationally famous group coming in and meddling in our business. It was this family from the town next door. That’s where it came down for us—these folks over the city line getting involved in ideological things rather than any kind of impact it was going to have on them.”

It was just one phone call, but its effect cannot be overstated. After the Fayetteville City Council ignored Michelle Duggar by voting in favor of the LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance, opponents lobbied to get the issue put up to a public vote. It was repealed 52 percent to 48 percent.

Fayetteville would continue to flip-flop on the issue of LGBTQ nondiscrimination in the coming months. Although the first ordinance (referred to locally as Chapter 119) was repealed at the ballot box in December 2014, the Fayetteville City Council passed an amended version (the aforementioned Ordinance 5781) in June 2015. Voters upheld the updated civil rights law by six points, but by that point, it didn’t matter. According to the Arkansas Times, the first ordinance had “sparked the introduction of SB 202 by Sen. Bart Hester” in February 2015, which would pre-empt Ordinance 5781. The newly elected Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) did not veto the bill, which then became Act 137. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruling was simply the final nail.

Laura Bell Phillips, a co-founder of For Fayetteville, said most people she knew were “really mad” when they picked up the phone and Michelle Duggar was on the other end. However, she claims the message reached enough people to trigger the ordinance’s eventual downfall. Until then, the fight over the ordinance had been relatively quiet, but suddenly it was headline news in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, as well as on the lips of seemingly every conservative lawmaker in the state.

Phillips claimed the fallout was proof the Duggars have a “powerful voice.”

“I think there were enough people on the fence that we lost,” she said. “For people who were on the fence, they might say: ‘Michelle Duggar is a mom like me. She’s from here, and she wouldn’t lie because she’s a woman of God. If she says this is how the ordinance would play out, I’m sure that’s the way it is.'”

The Impact of Michelle Duggar’s Robocall

Even before the Arkansas Supreme Court stepped in to put an end to Fayetteville’s nondiscrimination ordinance, the damage had largely been done for the town’s LGBTQ residents.

Dale Manning, president of the Transgender Equality Network, volunteered every single day to help pass Ordinance 5781. While he was leaving the For Fayetteville offices one evening, Manning said a “very large man” who was “at least six feet tall” cornered him and harassed him. “People like you are what’s ruining society,” the man barked.

Manning claimed he had a “visceral reaction” to being confronted by a stranger after dark.

“It reminded me of when I was living as female and men would confront me because they thought they could take whatever it was I had—whether my belongings or my body,” he told Rewire.News. “Transgender people [have] always been fearful for our safety. We’ve always gone out in groups during certain times, but we went from vigilant to hyper-vigilant.”

Aug. 18, 2014: Fayetteville receives anti-trans robocall from Michelle Duggar

Aug. 19, 2014: Fayetteville City Council approves LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance, Chapter 119

Sept. 20, 2014: Opponents of LGBTQ rights collect enough signatures to get a repeal of the ordinance put up to a public vote

Dec. 9, 2014: Fayetteville votes to repeal Chapter 119 by a 52-to-48 margin

Feb. 2, 2015: Arkansas Sen. Bart Hester introduces SB 202, which pre-empts local nondiscrimination ordinances forbidding anti-LGBTQ bias

Feb. 25, 2015: Gov. Asa Hutchinson does not veto SB 202, allowing it to go into law as Act 137

March 19, 2015: In Touch Weekly reports Josh Duggar sexually abused four of his siblings when he was a teenager

June 16, 2015: Fayetteville City Council approves a second civil rights law, this time known as Ordinance 5781

July 16, 2015: TLC cancels 19 Kids and Counting

Sept. 8, 2015: Ordinance 5781 is upheld by voters by a 53-to-47 margin

Sept. 21, 2015: TLC announces spin-off of 19 Kids and Counting focusing on Jill Duggar Dillard and Jessa Duggar Seewald

Dec. 13, 2015: First episode of Counting On premieres on the network, drawing 2.2 million viewers

Feb. 23, 2017: Arkansas Supreme Court strikes down newly passed ordinance, claiming LGBTQ protections are voided by Act 137

Jan. 31, 2019: Arkansas Supreme Court upholds earlier ruling, which LGBTQ advocacy groups in Fayetteville appeal

Feb. 11, 2019: Counting On premieres ninth season on TLC

Incidents like these were rare before 2014, residents say. Fayetteville is often described as “Gayetteville” and “the Berkeley of Northwest Arkansas,” a queer refuge in a state that voted for the GOP candidate by 20-point margins in the past two presidential elections. It’s home to the Ozark Land Holders Association, one of the nation’s oldest lesbian communes, and Northwest Arkansas Equality, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.

However, the national press coverage the robocall brought to Fayetteville also invited unprecedented scrutiny on its LGBTQ population—particularly transgender people.

While there’s no available data on increases in anti-LGBTQ harassment since Fayetteville began debating a nondiscrimination ordinance, locals compared it to the national 17 percent surge in hate crimes during the first year of Trump’s presidency. Attacks have ranged from verbal abuse and intimidation to targeted vandalism. In the days leading up to the vote on Ordinance 5781, a sign was defaced with a homophobic slur sprayed across it in black graffiti.

Lisa Stuart, vice president of the Transgender Equality Network, recalled an incident in which a friend was accosted while leaving a Target bathroom. An old woman waiting outside of the restroom began screaming at her. The woman continued to hurl abuse and vitriol as she followed her around the store.

“Before the robocall, nobody thought about where trans people go to the bathroom,” she told Rewire.News. “We just existed. After that, it was like people were looking for us.”

The toxic climate surrounding the nondiscrimination debate forced out a local business owner outed as trans, according to Manning. The proprietor owned a gaming shop, which tended to attract a crowd of teenagers who hung out in the store after school. Parents allegedly warned that being alone with a trans person would be a threat to “impressionable” young people.

“They finally had enough,” Manning said of the shopkeeper. “It became too much for them and their family. It was more stress than it ever needed to be.”

The toxicity would spread to other states in the coming months, after the Duggars helped show what a powerful weapon anti-trans panic could be. At least 115 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in 2015, then a record high. Twenty-one of those proposals specifically targeted transgender people.

Such attacks date back to the 1970s, when opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment claimed it would lead to the abolition of gendered restrooms. The rhetoric has barely changed in the years since. Opponents of a Florida ordinance in 2008 circulated a black-and-white attack ad showing a man leering at a helpless girl outside a public bathroom. About a year later, mailers distributed in Michigan predicted LGBTQ civil rights protections would make it legal “for anyone to declare himself to be any sex he chooses at any time.”

But what was new about Fayetteville is that such strategies had rarely been deployed all that successfully. Both of these anti-discrimination ordinances ultimately passed. Arkansas set the template for how campaigns against LGBTQ rights could be won: with the right mix of money, messaging, and influence.

Before he was forced to resign in disgrace, Josh Duggar worked for the Family Research Council—one of the nation’s most influential anti-LGBTQ organizations. The Duggars appeared in a 2012 video supporting Rick Santorum’s presidential bid and campaigned for Mike Huckabee in both 2008 and 2016. Jim Bob and Josh Duggar each donated $1,000 to the 2012 campaign of Sen. Hester, who would sponsor the bill undermining Fayetteville’s ordinance. In Fayetteville itself, the Duggars donated $10,000 of their $3.5 million net worth to support the election of anti-ordinance candidates Joshua Crawford, Paul Phaneuf, and John La Tour to the city council.

Smith claimed the Duggars had a “lasting impact” on the town’s politics well after the nondiscrimination ordinance fight.

“They gave max contributions to numerous local and political candidates—some pretty fringe folks,” the councilmember claimed. “We were stuck with John La Tour on our city council for four years largely because of the Duggars. They didn’t just stop at messaging on that one issue. They waged war on every local official race for two terms.”

A similar constellation of factors served to thwart the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in 2015. Campaign for Houston, which opposed the trans-inclusive civil rights measure, had local celebrities to disseminate their talking points (former MLB player Lance Berkman), big-name donors (Houston Texans owner Bob McNair), and widely circulated videos portraying trans people as a shadowy menace. In the end, Campaign for Houston spent more than $330,000 to ensure it was voted down 62 percent to 38 percent at the ballot.

The Family Research Council, Josh Duggar’s organization, was extremely active in the Houston campaign. The group was joined by anti-LGBTQ groups like American Family Association (AFA), which later led a boycott of Target’s trans-inclusive bathroom policies; National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which was behind Proposition 8 in California; and Alliance Defending Freedom, which has introduced anti-trans bathroom bills in at least a dozen states.

Although Houston is home to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, it had a lesbian mayor at the time of HERO’s repeal. The Texas city hasn’t elected a conservative to the mayor’s office in 38 years.

If the repeal of equality can happen in Houston and Fayetteville, LGBTQ advocates say it can happen anywhere.

“They just had more money than we did,” Danielle Weatherby, an attorney and legal analyst based in Fayetteville, told Rewire.News. “We put out a positive campaign. We went house to house. We tried to educate people, but we did not have a lot of money, and they did. They put a lot of their money into propaganda, and it was compelling to this base of individuals who already opposed this ordinance. Michelle Duggar’s robocall just added fuel to the fire.”

How Trans People Rebuilt Fayetteville

The Duggars never apologized for their role in the Fayetteville ordinance or the harm caused to the city’s LGBTQ community. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have only continued to double down on their position, even after Josh’s history as a sexual abuser was exposed.

When Megyn Kelly—then a correspondent for Fox News—sat down with the Duggars in their Tontitown home four years ago, Jim Bob and Michelle said they “felt like failures” after Josh admitted to preying on his own sisters. Kelly asked the couple how they could then “compare transgender people to child molesters”—a claim that has repeatedly been proven false—when they knew their own son was responsible for these horrific acts. Michelle dismissed the question, saying it wasn’t a fair comparison.

“I think that protecting young girls and not allowing young men and men in general to go into a girls’ locker room is just common sense,” she said.

The Duggars went on to argue they had been the ones attacked by the mainstream media distorting their beliefs. “There’s an agenda, and there’s people that are purposing to try to bring things out and twisting them to hurt and slander,” Michelle claimed.

While they briefly lost their show over Josh’s molestation controversy, they have never been held accountable for helping nullify civil rights protections for thousands of people. Viewers can tune in to see Jim Bob and Michelle shepherd their eldest children into adulthood every week on TLC. In addition to airing new episodes on Monday nights, the network frequently broadcasts reruns of Counting On to fill its early morning time slots.

In Fayetteville, the story is very different. The family’s credibility was severely marred in the aftermath of Josh Duggar’s molestation scandal, and they’ve been extremely quiet in local politics ever since. Before the Arkansas Supreme Court got involved, Smith claimed one of the key reasons that voters upheld Ordinance 5781 in September 2015 is that the Duggars “kept their mouths shut.”

“The Duggars had the perfect storm in terms of recognizability and crossover appeal,” Smith said. “Fast-forward to when Josh’s scandal came around, and they’ve been very under the radar. There’s even a ‘For Sale’ sign on their house.”

According to Phillips, the For Fayetteville co-founder, the Duggars have “become these sad figures in the area.”

“It’s kind of a pity party now,” she claimed. “You’ll hear people say, ‘I was at Sam’s Club or Aldi’s and I saw Michelle Duggar and three of her kids. They all looked really tired, and they’re buying Styrofoam plates.’ I would have hoped that TLC dropped them, walked away whistling, and never looked back, but we like reality TV because we can gawk at people. They’re very gawkable.”

But the LGBTQ community in Fayetteville has worked to prepare for the storm should the Duggars ever regain their stature. In addition to the Transgender Equality Network, there are now two other support groups for trans people in Northwest Arkansas.

Although the University of Arkansas temporarily halted its plans to roll out transition-related care to faculty and staff, the college regularly hosts events for trans and nonbinary students—such as a vigil marking the Transgender Day of Remembrance or guest lectures featuring trans speakers.

If Fayetteville learned anything from the past four years, it’s that hiding only gives people like the Duggars more power. During the Chapter 119 vote, trans people in Northwest Arkansas say they were encouraged by organizers with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)—which came in to assist local LGBTQ groups—to remain behind the scenes to avoid scrutiny.

Stuart claimed representatives with HRC, which did not respond to a request for comment on this story, asked that transgender people refrain from knocking on doors or making phone calls, which unintentionally sent the message that the pro-ordinance campaign was holding the trans community at arm’s length.

HRC organizers “wanted to reduce our visibility as a way to avoid the issue,” Stuart claimed. “That obviously didn’t work.”

By contrast, transgender people were front and center in the campaign during the second vote on Fayetteville’s nondiscrimination ordinance. They shared their stories, let the greater community get to know them, and used their voices to combat dangerous falsehoods propagated by anti-LGBTQ groups. Trans people hosted workshops and trans 101 events to educate the members about who they are and who they aren’t. Many of these resources continue to be offered in Northwest Arkansas today.

This is what the LGBTQ movement has demonstrated time and again, as Manning claimed. “People fear what they don’t know and turn to the things they do,” he said.

The only solution to fear is “more visibility,” Stuart said.

“It’s easy to hate this phantom thing that some celebrity is telling you a horror story about,” she claimed. “It’s a lot harder to hate Lydia who works at the grocery store. Once you put a name, a face, and a voice to the issues, people tend to become more understanding. It’s someone they know, and that changes things.”

Should Fayetteville ever have the opportunity to debate LGBTQ rights again after the Arkansas Supreme Court weighs in, most residents know that they know a trans person now. Transgender people have always existed. They’ve always used the bathroom and bagged produce at the local market. But for far too long, the only ones paying attention were the wrong people—the ones who got to keep their media platform to spew hate.

Viewers in the United States built a national stage for a family whose worldview is based on bigotry. We allowed them to keep it, although the stage is smaller than before.

“The Duggars commercialized their faith,” Smith claimed. “They’re not on TV because they have 19 kids. They’re on TV because their god tells them to have 19 kids and keep going. It’s not just this quirky thing the Duggars do. It’s the ‘message of God,’ and they will tell you that at every opportunity. There was no doubt or surprise where they were on this issue.”

Rewire.News reached out to the Duggars for comment on this story. They did not respond, but an auto reply claimed the family prays “for everyone who contacts us.”

“Above all, remember that God loves you so very much,” the auto-responder said. “He gave his only son, Jesus, that you may know God personally, have forgiveness for your sins, and gain eternal life. Nothing in life is as important as this!”