by Dana Cooper | photos courtesy of Out In Eureka
Looking for a great way to spend a few days this summer? Head just a few hours west to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where you’ll be surrounded by breathtaking natural scenery and original Victorian architecture in the Ozark Mountains.
Eureka Springs, which was founded at the base of Arkansas’ natural springs, still has eight different bubbling springs visitors can visit or wade into. The town is also known for its proximity to two lakes, Beaver and Table Rock, and the White River. Visitors can rent a pontoon, paddleboat or canoe and spend the day fishing, frolicking, or simply floating.
“Eureka Springs is sort of known as an adult playground,” said Jay Wilks, the director of Out in Eureka, Eureka Springs’ LGBTQ+ organization. Thirty-eight percent of Eureka Springs’ population identifies as LGBTQ+, according to Wilks, and Out in Eureka plays a prominent role in ensuring the community remains tightly knit.
The journey to become inclusive has been challenging. A 2015 New York Times article explains that Eureka Springs and nearby Fayetteville passed city ordinances that offered anti-discrimination protection to its LGBTQ+ citizens – protection denied by the state itself – a move that was supported by the majority of voters in the communities in question. According to the article, there was some backlash from conservative leaders, who cited Eureka Springs’ decision to become inclusive as responsible for driving away prospective Christians from visiting the town and its renowned Passion Play, which features a reenactment of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
Billed as the ‘largest kiss-off’ in the Midwest, PDA (Public Display of Affection) in the Park is an event
for everyone. The event is part of OutEureka’s Diversity Weekend, the next weekend of which is
coming up in August, 2018.
Unfortunately, in 2017, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled the town’s anti-discrimination ordinance in violation of state law, according to CBS News. Attorneys for the state charged that enforcing anti-discrimination law at the local level would force Christian businesses to serve patrons whose “lifestyles” they did not support or agree with. The article explains that there are three states in the country – Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina – that ban municipal-level anti- discrimination ordinances for groups of people not already covered under broader state legislation. In Arkansas, state law does not protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The good news is that the fight has not stopped there. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas reports that lower courts are challenging the constitutionality of the state’s local ordinance ban. For the time being, anti- discrimination efforts are being upheld by each town’s businesses of their own volition, and Wilks says it’s hard to find a place in Eureka Springs that isn’t welcoming of its LGBTQ+ citizens and visitors.
Wilks, who has been the director of Out in Eureka since 2017, says that the group’s Diversity Weekends, which are hosted every April, August and November, are too good to miss. Diversity Weekends typically bring in crowds of up to 2,000 people, some from as far away as Canada. This says a lot for a town with a population of 2,100.
This summer’s Diversity Weekend will open with a one-man performance by the award-winning playwright and director Del Shores. Shores, whose comedies tackle issues of great importance to the LGBTQ+ community – marriage equality being chief among those in plays such as “A Very Sordid Wedding,” which was recently featured as part of OUTMemphis’ OUTFlix Film Festival – will be performing Friday, August 3, at The Auditorium, Eureka Springs’ largest event venue. Saturday’s day-long festival, Diversity in the Park, held in Basin Springs Park, is open- access and family-friendly, with vendors, food and entertainment for all.
Another must-see event that takes place as part of Diversity Weekend is PDA in the Park, which Wilks describes as the “largest kiss-off in the Midwest.” For the uninitiated, PDA stands for “public display of affection,” and everyone in the park is welcome, even encouraged, to take part.
If you have time to spend in Eureka Springs after Diversity Weekend has wrapped up, you’ll still find plenty to do. Outdoor enthusiasts will find ample opportunities for hiking – the town is in the Ozarks, after all – and a multitude of boutiques and magnificent spas are packed into the Downtown area. Wilks says it doesn’t matter which one you visit; they’re all worth stopping into.
“There’s just so much to do in Eureka Springs,” Wilks says. “If you’re bored here, it’s your own fault.”
Out in Eureka
August 3-5, 2018
The action begins on Friday, August 3, with a performance by Del Shores at The Auditorium. Diversity in the Park begins Saturday, August 4, and features live music, drag shows, and games for all. For more information about this event and others like it, follow Out in Eureka on Facebook (@outineureka) and Twitter (@outineureka).