NWA Equality pauses partnership with Walton Arts Center over drag performance decision

(Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer staff)

A local nonprofit that provides education and advocacy for the LGBTQ community says it has moved its annual Pride Week events away from the Walton Arts Center over a recent decision to not allow certain types of drag performances at the venue.

NWA Equality, which has partnered with the arts center in hosting Pride events for nearly two decades, said its youth zone will move to the Fayetteville Town Center in 2023.

Officials with NWA Equality in a news release said the arts center informed NWA Equality that its drag performances are no longer allowed in their facilities during Northwest Arkansas Pride Weekend.

The group said the decision was surprising, considering recent and future programming at the Walton Arts Center features actors performing in drag, including The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tootsie and Hairspray.

A spokesperson for the Walton Arts Center said Wednesday that drag is indeed a performance medium the arts center recognizes and presents regularly on its stages, and that won’t change. What’s no longer allowed are drag story time events for minors and drag performances by adults that are aimed specifically at minors.

“Our decision was made in the interest of safety concerns for performers, patrons and staff due to the divisive political rhetoric at this time,” according to a statement from the WAC.

NWA Equality said it has used the arts center as a venue for LGBTQ youth and their families since 2018, including drag story time events, and drag shows suitable for teens.

“These events have included performances by drag celebrities that youth can often only access through television and movies,” according to the NWA Equality release. “NWA Equality takes great care to create age-appropriate content during this event, often in partnership with youth organizations and educators.”

NWA Equality said it requested to book the arts center for programming “identical to NWA Pride activities hosted at the facility in previous years.” This year, however, they were told by Peter Lane, Walton Arts Center president and chief executive officer, that the events are not permitted, according to the release.

The decision was disappointing, the group said, considering there are no laws banning drag performances attended by youth.

Arkansas lawmakers recently adopted a bill that originally would have restricted where drag performances could take place, but the law was amended to only define what an “adult-oriented performance” is – which is described in as being overtly sexual with complete or partial nudity. The new law does not mention the word “drag.”

The NWA Pride Youth Zone at the Town Center is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, June 24, in conjunction with the NWA Pride Festival and Parade on Dickson Street.