Region & State

Anti-drag legislation passes Arkansas Senate in 29-6 party-line vote

GOP senators say it will shield children; Democrats say it targets transgender Arkansans

By TESS VRBIN | Arkansas Advocate

A proposed law that would limit where drag performances can occur will head to the Arkansas House of Representatives after passing the Senate on a party-line vote Tuesday.

 Tien Estell (front), an organizer with transgender advocacy group Intransitive, leads a flash mob in front of the Arkansas Capitol on Monday to protest Senate Bill 43, which would define “a drag performance” as an adult-oriented business. | Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate

Senate Bill 43  defines a “drag performance” as at least one person “exhibit[ing] a gender identity that is different from the performer’s gender 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” and singing, dancing, lip-syncing or performing in other ways in front of an audience.

The bill classifies a drag performance as an adult business similar to pornography, strip clubs and other sexually explicit content and activities.

Supporters of the bill have said it will protect children from sexual content, while opponents have said the broad definition of drag poses a danger to transgender and nonbinary Arkansans.

All 29 Republicans voted for the legislation, which was authored by Sen. Gary Stubblefield of Branch. Fifteen fellow senators signed on as co-sponsors. Rep. Mary Bentley, Perryville, is the House sponsor; 13 other representatives signed on as co-sponsors in the chamber.

All six Senate Democrats voted against the bill, and four of them spoke against it during the nearly hour-long debate before the vote.

“[This bill] will hurt kids, particularly kids who struggle to feel welcome and safe and accepted and as though they belong in Arkansas,” said Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville). “… I can’t imagine how they feel when they see their Legislature demonize their community and make them feel as though they are somehow a threat to their peers just by being who they are.”

Senate Bill 43 asserts that drag “is intended to appeal to the prurient interest,” meaning overtly sexual in nature. It would outlaw such performances or businesses that stage them on public property or in the proximity of minors, and it would restrict these businesses to areas that children do not frequent.

Stubblefield told the Senate he believes “putting children in front of a bunch of grown men who are dressed like women” cannot have any good outcomes.

“I had one [person] email me and say that I hate drag queens, and that’s a lie,” he said. “I don’t hate anybody. I do hate sin because that’s the way I was raised. I think that I know what’s wrong in God’s eyes because that’s the way I was raised, and I believe the Bible, but I don’t hate any drag queens.”

He added that the bill should not interfere with “woman-less beauty pageants” common at some fairs nor with theater productions in which actors wear clothing that does not match their gender assigned at birth.

Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) disagreed and said the vagueness of the bill could target the ongoing production of Tootsie, a musical in which the male protagonist dresses as a woman, at the Robinson Center in Little Rock. He also said the bill could criminalize LGBTQ pride events.

“This bill is not about governing,” Tucker said. “It’s about bullying, and if you don’t believe me or agree, all you have to do is look at the language in the bill.”

Performance as protest

About 200 people gathered last week on the Capitol steps to protest Senate Bill 43. The rally included a performance of “Seasons of Love” by a group of dozens, including drag performers and transgender Arkansans, since organizers said such a performance might soon be made illegal.

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