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HIGH PROFILE: Evelyn Rios Stafford uses her experience to speak on trans youth issues

Evelyn Stafford stayed true to herself, becoming a boon to her journalist co-workers and the state. She uses her experience to speak on trans youth issues. by Lara Jo Hightower | June 20, 2021 at 8:34 a.m.
Evelyn Rios Stafford poses Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in her garden at her home in Fayetteville. Rios Stafford is a Justice of the Peace for Washington County and the first transgender woman elected as a public official in Arkansas.Visit nwaonline.com/210620Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

When Washington County Justice of the Peace Evelyn Rios Stafford sat down to talk about transgender civil rights issues with Gov. Asa Hutchinson this past May, she didn’t quite know what to expect.

“I told the governor at the beginning, ‘I just want to tell you that I’m super nervous about meeting you,’” she says with a quick laugh. “He said, ‘Well, there’s no reason to be nervous.’”

But from Rios’ perspective, there was. She had been contacted by state Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, after the Arkansas General Assembly passed HB 1570, the first bill passed in the United States that would ban gender-affirming care for trans youth. The bill made national news and was roundly denounced by human rights activists, and Stafford was being asked to try to convince Hutchinson to veto the bill — high stakes for such a brief meeting.

“Arkansas had just passed the most restrictive anti-trans law in the nation,” Stafford says. “Essentially, it’s a complete ban on trans-related health care for anyone under 18. No other state has done that, and it looks like no other state is going to do that. Nicole had the idea that the governor may have never in his life had a sit-down discussion with a trans person, and she felt that was probably an important thing for him to do before he decided whether to sign this bill or not.”

“In order to make our best case against this bill, I knew that it was critical to get those closest to the pain closest to the power,” Clowney says. “Evelyn was my first call. For years I have admired her work as an advocate for the rights of trans people. Moreover, it seemed like a natural fit for the first and only trans person elected to public office in Arkansas to meet with the person holding the highest office in the state.”

Stafford and Willow Brashears, an 18 year-old activist, spoke to the governor as he listened attentively and asked insightful questions.

“I knew from the beginning that this is a subject that, like most people, he had very little knowledge or experience with,” she says. “It’s a specialized field of medicine. The experts I’ve heard from say it affects around 200 kids in the whole state. Trans people are a very small percentage of the population, and trans youth are an even smaller slice of that. But we know what helps these kids exist, their families exist, and we know what helps them lead a happier, more productive life. In some cases, it means having access to these medicines, along with the consent of their families and the recommendation of their doctors, and we shouldn’t be getting in between them. I said, ‘Governor, I thought Republicans were supposed to be the party of small government. But here, the Legislature is getting in between doctors and their families. They’re getting in between teachers and students. They’re getting in between coaches and their teams. This is the very definition of big government.’”

“Evelyn communicated her concerns about this legislation clearly and powerfully,” Clowney says. “She spoke openly and vulnerably about her experience as a trans woman, which was critical. After the brutal session that trans people faced at the hands of our Legislature, it would have been completely understandable for Evelyn to have gone in to the meeting with a ‘burn it down’ mentality. But she didn’t. She was open and honest about the pain bills like this one cause the trans community, but at the same time, she narrowly and smartly focused her arguments on the details of the one particular bill that was sitting on the governor’s desk.”

The group was granted a 30-minute time slot. They left the governor’s office at close to the 45-minute mark.

“My anxiety was at an 11,” Stafford remembers. “When I walked out of that meeting, I had no idea what he was going to do. I had no idea which direction he was leaning. I was just rolling the whole thing over in my head. I was replaying every answer and kicking myself: ‘I should have said this. I should have said that. And what if I answered that question wrong? I screwed it up for trans kids across other states.’”

She need not have worried: Just a few days after her meeting with Hutchinson, he announced he would be vetoing HB 1570 (though the state Legislature would later override the veto). He said, first in a news conference and later in an op-ed article for The Washington Post, that the bill would create “new standards of legislative interference with physicians and parents as they deal with some of the most complex and sensitive matters involving young people” and that “the state should not presume to jump into the middle of every medical, human and ethical issue. This would be — and is — a vast government overreach.”

Stafford couldn’t help but hear echoes of her own arguments in the governor’s statement.

“I think that was a place where we found common ground — that in this area, government is not the expert,” she muses. “Doctors are the experts, and they, and these kids’ families, know way more than any politician does.”

NEWS PRODUCER

This wasn’t the first time Stafford found herself acting as a resource for those who sought to understand transgender concerns more completely. She grew up in Dallas, with a single mother (her parents were divorced when she was around 4 years old), the product of 12 years of Catholic school education. This was in the 1980s, long before the internet could serve as a way for Stafford to reach out to others who might help her understand who she was. She was an exceptional student, making excellent grades and coming around 100 points shy of a perfect SAT score. She juggled her studies with a job as an usher at a performing arts center in Houston. And when she went to Rice University, she got involved in the campus radio station, even serving a stint as news director. But behind the scenes, she was wrestling with how to be her most authentic self.

“I knew bits and pieces in high school,” she says. “I knew that I wasn’t straight, basically. But I didn’t have the language for figuring things out, and it wasn’t until I was 19, in the college library, doing research in the psychology section that I figured it out: ‘Oh my God. That’s me. I’m trans. What do I do with this information? How do I even begin to deal with this?’ It wasn’t until the end of my 20s that I did.”

By that time, she was working as a producer for an ABC news affiliate in San Francisco in a career where she had quickly climbed the ladder soon after she graduated from Rice University. The decade between her realization and when she transitioned was spent in thoughtful contemplation with the help of a therapist, and she learned how to announce she was transitioning to those in her life in a way that would be the most positive, healthy way possible for her.

“My fear, I think, held me back from coming out to my mom sooner. By the time I came out to her, things were pretty far along, and so I feel like, instead of bringing her along with me on the journey, I sort of just sprung it on her all at once at the end. I think that was difficult for her. In hindsight, if I had known then what I do now, I would have tried to bring her along on the journey. But I was scared.”

Meanwhile, she says, coming out at work was overwhelmingly positive. The same qualities that made her a successful producer — her pragmatism, her unflappability, her meticulous communication skills — were useful for the task.

“I was in an environment where everybody was a journalist, [where] what people do all day is ask people questions,” she says with a laugh. “I brought them along on a journey, and they got to be educated about an issue that maybe they weren’t totally aware of. I became a resource for people in the newsroom — if they were reporting on LGBT issues, they might ask, ‘Am I using the right language in this report?’ It was really kind of neat — I was an asset, in a way, and I helped improve our quality of reporting.”

She won two Emmy Awards the year after she transitioned.

“It was a huge relief,” Stafford says. “I was so happy about finally getting to work and live as my authentic self, and I poured myself into my work.”

GETTING MARRIED

Dating as a trans person was more complicated, she discovered.

“Dating as a trans person is awkward and difficult, and I would really never want to do it again,” she says wryly. “There’s the whole question of, ‘When do I come out to somebody?’ After I transitioned, unless I told people, people didn’t know I was trans. So, do I put it on my dating profile? Or tell them when we’re emailing? Or wait until we’re meeting in a coffee shop? How do you navigate this? And there’s no good answer. If you put it on a dating profile — OK, that’s one aspect of me, but it’s not the whole totality of who I am. I don’t want people to necessarily focus on that above everything else. I want them to get to know me as a person. But, obviously, you don’t want things to get too far along.”

The issues that Stafford raises are more than the average quandaries a cisgender person might face when putting together an online dating profile. Violence and murder committed against the transgender community — especially transgender women — have risen steeply over the past decade. Stafford says those statistics were always in her head when relationships moved more quickly than she anticipated.

“Sometimes, I think that’s how some of these girls get into situations where bad things happen,” she says quietly. “Guys react badly. Sometimes, guys push things too quickly, before you get a chance to approach the subject, and then things can get bad.”

She put that behind her, however, when she met future husband, Bob Stafford.

“I met this crazy, wacky, free spirited artist who lived in an artists’ warehouse in San Francisco,” she recalls. “He was from Fayetteville, Arkansas. And he was a super cool guy. And he had no problem introducing me to his family when we started getting more serious, and I loved them to death, and vice versa.”

“From day one, I was just smitten,” Bob says. “She was just whip smart, interesting, her values … I was like, ‘Wow. A gorgeous, successful, smart woman who wants to hang out with me.’ As our relationship developed, she always drove me to be my best. She made me want to be my best man.”

CIVIL RIGHTS

The duo moved to Fayetteville to help Bob’s family digitize the family business, The Star Shopper. Stafford — burned out after 15 years in the insanely fast-paced ABC News division — and her soon-to-be-husband had started their own marketing company. It was supposed to be a temporary move, but they were soon planting permanent roots.

The couple almost immediately got involved with Fayetteville’s campaign for a civil rights ordinance, which was in full swing the year they moved to Arkansas.

“She could have easily just blended in and gone stealth, but I knew I had to speak out, and I think at that point, Evelyn realized that was something we needed to fight for,” Bob says. “She didn’t necessarily come out, but she lived her authentic self, just as she did in San Francisco. And it didn’t matter to anyone. Evelyn is Evelyn, and everyone loved her.”

Her activism during the campaign led to a wider circle of friends with political ties, and she was soon using her considerable experience with affordable housing concerns on the Fayetteville Housing Authority board. When Washington County District 12 Justice of the Peace candidate Candy Clark had to drop out of her race due to illness, Stafford stepped in. And won.

“People had been joking with me on and off — ‘You should run for city council!’” she says. “And I’d say, ‘Oh, no. Who is going to vote for a transsexual out-of-towner? From Dallas, no less!’ That alone is disqualifying.”

Right after her election in November there was a flurry of national news stories about her status as Arkansas’ first elected trans public official, but, other than that, “nobody’s ever mentioned it, and it doesn’t really factor into anything except for the fact that I make a point to make sure people know I perform same-sex marriages,” she says.

Stafford was elected while covid-19 shuttered many Arkansas businesses, leaving tens of thousands of Northwest Arkansans struggling. Much of her time on the Quorum Court has been spent grappling with how federal covid funds can be spent most effectively. On a sharply politically divided court, the conversations haven’t always been easy. But Bob says Stafford’s skill set is ideal for such a setting.

“When we spoke to the City Council about the ordinance, I gave an emotional plea as to why Fayetteville needs to do this,” he remembers. “She gets up and talks about numbers and the economic impact — the reality of how this is going to affect businesses if you don’t pass it, because Fayetteville will not be seen as a welcoming place. She’s able to get up and talk facts and numbers. She’s super engaging and friendly, and you feel a connection with her. But she is also so intelligent, and her years as a news producer taught her how to research anything. She goes so far in-depth in her research when she’s looking into a subject.

“We’re fairly progressive on social issues in that we believe in equity, fairness and equal rights, but when it comes to bread and butter issues, we’re pretty center of the road. Republican, Democrat, it doesn’t matter. She gets along with everyone. It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are, what your religion is, what your politics are, what your socioeconomic status is — she’s able to make a connection with anyone about anything. If she doesn’t know, she’s going to learn. And I think that’s another reason she’s so effective. She isn’t polarizing. It’s clear to anyone that spends time talking to her that she prioritizes good governance over politics.”

Since Stafford has started advocating on behalf of trans youth, she has talked to a lot of families with transgender children who are affected by the recent anti-transgender legislation.

“I think the thing that has touched my heart the most — and hurt my heart, in some ways — is hearing from families that have reached out,” she says. “Parents of trans kids who are in our state, they’re real people. They’re not just talking points. And they’re upset. They’re angry. They’re frustrated. They’re sad. They feel like they’ve been demonized by the folks trying to pass these bills. One of the talking points on the other side of this bill is, ‘Oh, well, you wouldn’t let your kid drink or smoke or get a tattoo. Why should you let them have hormones?’

“It’s a completely false comparison. [Those things are] not medical care. And so these parents feel that they have been painted as if they are bad, negligent parents, which is as far from the truth as you can possibly get. These are parents who care deeply about their kids. They want their kids to thrive, they want their kids to have what they need, [to have] the tools that they need for a positive future. They want their kids to navigate high school without falling prey to self-harm, bullying and other mental health issues. They want them to be able to do simple things, like play on a soccer team with their friends or to not have the distress of going through the wrong puberty when they have seen this coming since they were 3 or 4 years old.”

The kind of exposure Stafford is signing up for can invite hateful blowback and even has the potential to put her in harm’s way. But, she says, for her, it’s worth it.

“I feel like, by an accident of history, I’m in this position — I’m called to step up,” she says. “And this goes back to my upbringing — to me, the way to salvation is through good works. To be a good citizen, to stand up for the underdog, to stand up for what’s right. And to be inclusive of everybody. God loves everybody. He loves all of us, and so discrimination is wrong.

“For whatever reason, God put me in this spot at this time. And so, here I am, and I’m going to try and speak up.”

Self Portrait

Evelyn Rios Stafford

Birth date and place of birth: February 4, 1973, in Dallas

I know I’ve helped someone when I see them succeed.

Few people know I’ve had life-long anxiety.

I’m at my best when I’m working on something I’m passionate about.

If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s progress isn’t always a straight line.

One word to sum me up is persistent.

The best piece of advice anyone has ever given me is that everything is going to be OK.

The person who has had the biggest impact on my life is my husband.

A thing people would be surprised to learn about me is I’m actually an introvert and kind of shy.

My most humbling experience was working in a TV newsroom on 9/11.

People who knew me in high school would say I was the smart kid.

The last great book I read was “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein

My greatest strength is my ability to connect with people from all walks of life.

“I was in an environment where everybody was a journalist, [where] what people do all day is ask people questions. I brought them along on a journey, and they got to be educated about an issue that maybe they weren’t totally aware of. I became a resource for people in the newsroom — if they were reporting on LGBT issues, they might ask, ‘Am I using the right language in this report?’ It was really kind of neat — I was an asset, in a way, and I helped improve our quality of reporting.” - Evelyn Rios Stafford
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
“I was in an environment where everybody was a journalist, [where] what people do all day is ask people questions. I brought them along on a journey, and they got to be educated about an issue that maybe they weren’t totally aware of. I became a resource for people in the newsroom — if they were reporting on LGBT issues, they might ask, ‘Am I using the right language in this report?’ It was really kind of neat — I was an asset, in a way, and I helped improve our quality of reporting.” - Evelyn Rios Stafford (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
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