By Katabella Roberts
The Arkansas Senate voted on Jan. 24 to approve legislation that would classify drag performances as an “adult-oriented business” in the same way as strip clubs and escort services.
Senate Bill 43 (pdf), sponsored by Republican state Sen. Gary Stubblefield and state Rep. Mary Bentley, would ban drag performances from being carried out on public property that are “intended to appeal to the prurient interest” and where anyone under the age of 18 can attend.
The majority-Republican Senate approved the bill on a 29–6 vote along party lines. All six of the chamber’s Democrat lawmakers opposed the bill.
Specifically, the bill would also place drag performances on the list of adult-oriented businesses in the state’s code, which includes adult arcades, book and video stores, adult cabaret, adult live entertainment establishments, adults movies in cinemas, massage establishments that provide “adult services,” and escort agencies, among others.
Under the bill, a drag performance is defined as a performance in which one or more performers “sings, lip-synchs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience of at least two persons for entertainment, whether performed for payment or not.”
During the performance, as defined under the bill, the performer “exhibits 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.”
The legislation now heads to the majority-Republican House. If enacted, the bill would make Arkansas the first state to place such restrictions on drag shows.
Opponents Say Bill Targets Transgender People
During Tuesday’s floor session, Stubblefield argued that the bill was needed to protect children from sexually explicit content.
“I can’t think of any redeeming quality, 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.
He added later: “If you need your child to be entertained by a big human in a costume, then take them to the circus or something,” noting that children viewing drag shows is a “violation of their personal boundaries.”
Opponents of the bill have claimed the legislation targets transgender people.
“It appears to me you’re trying to put a target on people’s backs that are not, according to you, normal,” Democrat Sen. Stephanie Flowers said before Tuesday’s vote.
In a Jan. 10 statement, the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union Arkansas (ACLU) said the bill targets LGBT residents and claimed that the bill would affect “not only people who dress in drag but also transgender people who dress according to their gender identity.”
“Laws like SB43 are a red herring and more broadly attempt to erase LGBTQ people from public life by forcing gender norms onto private businesses and individuals,” the ACLU said. “Drag is a form of creative expression like any other. And transgender people have a right to live and participate in public life.”
If enacted, the bill would prohibit drag performances from being carried out from within 1,000 feet of schools, churches, parks, and libraries because of the “adult-oriented business” classification.
Children ‘Confused About Their Own Gender’
Stubblefield told lawmakers on Tuesday that children today are “confused about their own gender” and have experienced more of the “ugliness of society and of sex that it’d become a secret burden to many of them.”
“Sometimes we’ve lowered our standards when it comes to standing up and calling things out,” Stubblefield said. “I had one email me and said that I hated drag queens. That’s a lie, I don’t hate anybody. I don’t hate anybody. I do hate sins.”
Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has not indicated whether she will sign the legislation if or when it makes its way to her desk.
Sanders has said she would support legislation modeled after Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” law, banning school districts from, in part, encouraging classroom discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
“Governor Sanders believes we need to be protecting and educating kids, not indoctrinating them,” Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for Sanders, said when asked about the bill. “It’s time to get back to letting kids be kids again.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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