Bill to classify drag shows as ‘adult-oriented businesses’ clears Arkansas Senate

A drag queen who goes by the name Flame reads stories to children and their caretakers during a Drag Story Hour at a public library in New York, Friday, June 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Arkansas senators on Tuesday voted to classify drag shows as “adult-oriented businesses” under state law, advancing a bill meant to outlaw performances on public property or “where a minor can view” them.

The measure, introduced earlier this month by Arkansas state Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R), passed Tuesday in an unexpected 29-6 vote along party lines. It now heads to the Republican-controlled state House for consideration.

Under Stubblefield’s bill, a “drag performance” is defined as a performance in which an individual exhibits a gender identity that is different from their sex assigned at birth “using clothing, makeup, or other accessories that are traditionally worn by members of and are meant to exaggerate the gender identity of the performer’s opposite sex.”

An individual would also need to lip-sync, dance or otherwise perform for an audience of at least two people in an act that is “intended to appeal to the prurient interest” to qualify as a drag performer under the proposed legislation.

Stubblefield during Tuesday’s hearing argued that his legislation was drafted with the intent of “protecting children” from obscene or sexually explicit content and said his colleagues should ask themselves “if God would approve” of drag queens before casting their vote.

“I can’t think of anything good that can come from taking children and putting them in front of a bunch of grown men who are dressed like women,” Stubblefield said Tuesday in a reference to drag queen story hours, which have recently drawn the ire of Republican lawmakers.

LGBTQ advocates have sharply criticized Stubblefield’s bill, which they say violates the U.S. Constitution and targets transgender people.

Erin Reed, an independent legislative researcher, warned in a tweet on Tuesday that the Arkansas bill could “ban all trans people performing, doing karaoke, making a dirty joke, and more.”

Katy Montgomerie, a transgender LGBTQ rights activist in the United Kingdom, questioned whether an academic talk would be considered a “performance” under the law.

“So I think it’s illegal for me to give a talk at any university in Arkansas now?” she tweeted Tuesday after the bill cleared the Senate.

In a statement on Tuesday, Eric Reece, the Arkansas director of the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy group, said state lawmakers were weaponizing the power of the legislature to target LGBTQ people.

“Many drag performances – such as Drag Queen story hours at schools and libraries – are age appropriate for children and can teach important lessons like acceptance and openness,” Reece said Tuesday. “This is just another example of radical politicians in Arkansas spreading propaganda and creating more stigma, discrimination, and ultimately violence against transgender and non-binary people just to rile up extreme members of their base, the only voting bloc they are moving on these issues.”

Legislation targeting drag performances has been introduced in multiple state legislatures this year.

Similar to the Arkansas bill, a proposed drag ban in Tennessee would amend state law to include “adult cabaret performances” — including “male or female impersonators” — on a list of “adult-oriented businesses” that are unable to legally operate within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks or places of worship or be viewed by a minor.

Under an Oklahoma measure, individuals who hold drag queen story hours or adopt “a flamboyant or parodic feminine persona with glamorous or exaggerated costumes and makeup” could be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

Others more directly target transgender people. A pair of West Virginia bills, for instance, would make it illegal to subject a minor to “transgender exposure” in addition to material that is “patently offensive.”

Tags Arkansas drag shows gender identity Human Rights Campaign LGBTQ rights

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