Ralph Allen Hyman (1951–)
Ralph Allen Hyman, an activist on behalf of LGBTQ+ rights, as well as for those with AIDS, was the first openly gay candidate for the Arkansas General Assembly. He also was a cofounder of the Arkansas Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Arkansas AIDS Foundation, and The Weekend Theater.
Born on April 18, 1951, to a Jewish family in Davenport, Iowa, Ralph Hyman is the son of Leroy Hyman and Dorothy Cohen Hyman. He came out as gay at the age of eighteen and graduated from La Mirada High School in California in 1969. He attended New York University, graduating in 1973 with a degree in psychology. His graduate studies focused on homosexuality and the mental health profession. In 1974, he completed a master’s degree in general psychology from the City University of New York. For his doctorate, he enrolled at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. Receiving a joint internship in 1978 with the Elizabeth Mitchell Children’s Center, Arkansas State Hospital, and Little Rock Community Health Center, he moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County). He completed his Doctor of Education degree in 1980.
Choosing Little Rock as his permanent residence, Hyman established a private practice. His clientele included those with mental illnesses, people struggling with their sexuality, AIDS patients, and transgender people. He also established support groups for gay men and lesbians, transgender people, and their families. In 1981, he met his life partner, Mark Terry Burnette, a civil rights and education law attorney.
A committed activist, he joined Arkansas Gay Rights (AGR), a gay and lesbian rights organization. In 1983, he testified against HR 25, which sought to “stem the tide of homosexuality” at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). The bill proposed by Representative Travis Dowd of Texarkana (Miller County) urged college and university administrators to take “all lawful measures” to stop homosexuality on their campuses. The bill died in committee. Upon AGR disbanding in 1986, he and other activists founded the Arkansas Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
A Democrat, he ran for state representative from District 59 in 1990—the first openly gay candidate for the Arkansas General Assembly. His platform included the repeal of the sodomy law and the adoption of hate crimes legislation, as well as measures supporting AIDS education, reproductive rights, tax reform, and the prevention of domestic violence. He did not win the seat.
In response to the AIDS epidemic, Hyman educated the public in safer-sex measures, including the use of condoms. He spoke to the public at press conferences, as well as speaking before community and professional groups, university classes, and Arkansas Governor’s School. Asserting that AIDS was not a “gay disease,” he warned that the malady also affected the heterosexual community. With no AIDS hotline in place at the time, he gave out his phone number. He established a “buddy system,” with volunteers helping AIDS patients with various tasks. He founded AIDS House, providing a living space for disowned HIV+ men. He cofounded the Arkansas AIDS Foundation (AAF) in 1985, which assumed management of AIDS House. In June 1988, his AIDS work was recognized with an Arkansas Community Service Award. During his acceptance speech, Hyman proclaimed, “I am a homosexual.” He asserted that the award recognized not just his contributions, but also those of the state’s gay and lesbian community. He also requested donations to support AIDS House.
In 1989, upon learning that most funds donated to the AAF went to salaries and office expenses, he withdrew from the organization. Without his consent, AIDS House was closed in 1991. He redirected his energies, which included continued commitment to AIDS education and gay and lesbian rights, into a lifelong passion: the theater. In 1993, he and friends founded The Weekend Theater. It sought to produce “socially significant plays” presented in a setting that was “decidedly New York in character.” Both acting in and directing plays, he served as the theater’s artistic director through 2014. During his tenure, the theater produced more than 200 plays and musicals.
Retiring from his counseling practice in 2015, Hyman and Burnette moved to Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico.
For additional information:
“House Panel Rejects Effort to ‘Stem Homosexuality’ on University Campuses.” Arkansas Gazette, February 26, 1983, p. 13A.
Matlack, Carol. “Move against Campus Gays Is Opposed.” Arkansas Gazette, February 24, 1983, pp. 1A, 11A.
Ralph A. Hyman Papers (MC 1798). Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The Weekend Theater. https://www.weekendtheater.org/ (accessed March 31, 2022).
Todd E. Lewis
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