Arkansas House passes amended bill that no longer targets drag performances

The bill no longer explicitly adds drag shows to the list of businesses considered “adult-oriented."
The NWA Pride Pride Parade travels along Dickson Street in Fayetteville on Saturday, June 18, 2022. (Flyer Photo/Todd Gill)

The Arkansas House voted Monday to restrict “adult-oriented” performances, revamping a measure that previously targeted drag shows following discrimination complaints from the LGBTQ community.

The bill approved by the majority-Republican House on a 78-15 vote no longer explicitly adds drag shows to the list of businesses considered “adult-oriented,” easing some of the concerns of LGBTQ advocates and other opponents. The bill now heads back to the majority-Republican Senate, which approved an earlier version of the restriction.

“This bill is not about whether drag is acceptable,” Republican Rep. Mary Bentley, the bill’s sponsor, told House members before the vote. “It’s about whether we should be exposing our children to sexually explicit behavior.”

Arkansas is one of several states where Republican lawmakers have proposed restrictions on drag shows, which have been targeted by right-wing activists and politicians in recent months. Protesters have appeared at events like drag story hours, in which colorfully clad drag queens read books to children. Opponents of such events have claimed they’re harmful to children.

Under the current version of Arkansas’ bill, the restricted performances would include performers who are nude or seminude, and purposely exposing a specific anatomical area, or prosthetic breasts or genitalia. To meet the definition, the performance must feature real or simulated sexual activities and be intended to appeal to “prurient” interests, a term that’s not defined in the legislation.

The performances would be banned from public property, from being paid for with public funds and from allowing minors to attend.

The original version of the legislation would have classified drag shows as adult-oriented businesses, the same category as adult theaters and strip clubs, which would have banned them from being with 1,000 feet of public schools, churches and libraries.

The top Democrat in the House said that, even with the changes, the bill was too vaguely worded and worried about how far it could end up being interpreted.

“I think if people are going to get penalized for doing something, they should understand what the parameters are of that and what the definitions are,” Rep. Tippi McCullough, the House minority leader, said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week said the Republican supported the amended version of the legislation.

Opponents of the legislation said the amended version is an improvement over the original proposal that specifically targeted drag shows. That proposal prompted worries that it could restrict other performances where actors or actresses portray someone of the opposite sex, and would even restrict transgender people’s activities.

“This takes down our temperature and our concern about the bill quite significantly,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights group. But Warbelow said she doesn’t think the law is necessary, given existing laws addressing performances that are inappropriate for minors.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas called the changes “progress,” but said the bill still poses constitutional concerns since it could prevent some artists from performing in public places.

“Violating the First Amendment rights of all people is not an acceptable proposal to substitute for the targeting of some Arkansans,” the group said in a statement released on its website last week.