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Arkansas lawmakers ban gender-neutral ID’s

Arkansas State Capitol building.
Chris Hickey
Little Rock Public Radio
The policy change doing away with gender-neutral driver's licenses and IDs went into effect after the Arkansas Legislative Council adjourned Friday.

A policy ending gender-neutral driver's licenses and state IDs in Arkansas has officially gone into effect. The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday voted to approve the rule change put forward by the state Department of Finance and Administration.

Driver's licenses and state IDs list a person's sex. Previously, Arkansans could put an “X” in this section instead of a “M” or “F” as in male or female. The policy stops the gender-neutral option, which only 516 Arkansans have opted for. It also bars people from changing the “M” or “F” without documentation, something allowed for the past 14 years.

The approval was made along with a package of other rule changes approved by the committee. Democratic lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted to remove the policy change from the package of rules they were to vote on.

DFA can only change rules in an emergency. Debate sprung up during the committee meeting over whether the existence of the “X” on a driver's license was enough to trigger an emergency rule change.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, asked DFA Secretary Jim Hudson how many people had been "hurt" by gender-neutral driver's licenses.

Hudson said he wasn't sure.

“I don't have a number for you,” he said. “In terms of the number of people who may have been hurt. We don't keep that data at DFA”

Hudson said he was worried about people with "X" driver's licenses interacting with police, saying they posed a “potential threat.”

“There is a potential for a safety issue involving a law enforcement officer,” he said, adding that if a police officer takes someone into custody, they should “know who they are dealing with.”

Although, he said, “a good number” of police were unaware of the policy.

“I am very much concerned because it seems to me that the end effect is cruelty,” Chesterfield replied. “It's unnecessary and unworthy of us.”

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, tried to move to remove the policy from the package of rules the committee would be voting on. He said it did not constitute an emergency serious enough for a rule change

“The only emergency is if there is a peril to the public health, safety or welfare,” he said. “And furthermore, that peril has to be imminent.”

He reiterated Chesterfield's point that in 14 years, no one has been harmed by the current policy. Tucker also said, if a rule change like this were to be considered, the committee should allow public comment.

“It's a poor reflection of this body,” he said.

Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, disagreed. She said the initial policy should not have been approved without legislative input.

“I don't remember this body weighing in when it was changed in 2010 to put the ‘X’ on,” she said.

The new policy went into effect after the meeting adjourned Friday. People with gender-neutral licenses will be able to keep them for now, but they will not be able to keep the "X" on the license when they get them renewed.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.