Arkansas panel advances bill to restrict drag performances

Drag performer MD Hunter, whose stage name is Athena Sinclair, testifies before a state Senate...
Drag performer MD Hunter, whose stage name is Athena Sinclair, testifies before a state Senate panel as state Sen. Gary Stubblefield, left, listens, at the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. The Senate panel endorsed a bill by Stubblefield that would restrict where drag performances can be shown by classifying them as adult oriented businesses. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)(Andrew DeMillo | AP)
Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 7:07 PM CST
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Drag performances would be classified as adult-oriented businesses under a bill in Arkansas that a legislative panel endorsed Thursday. It’s the latest in a growing number of Republican-backed proposals nationwide to restrict or ban the shows.

The state Senate City, County and Local Affairs Committee advanced the proposal, which would also prohibit drag shows from public property. It next goes to the Republican-controlled Senate for a vote as early as Monday.

Drag shows have been targeted by right-wing activists and politicians in recent months. Arkansas’ bill is among more than 120 restrictions on LGBTQ people that have been introduced in statehouses so far this year, the American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday.

Drag story hours — which feature drag queens reading books to children — and other events have prompted protests by activists who portray them as harmful to children. Opponents of Arkansas’ proposed restrictions say they demonize an art form and marginalize LGBTQ people.

“This bill is just going to completely destroy what we do as an art form and make it a sexually oriented thing that it’s not,” drag performer MD Hunter, who testified in his drag persona Athena Sinclair, told the committee.

The proposed restrictions would classify places that show drag performances along with other adult businesses, such as adult theaters and strip clubs. The designation would prohibit them from being within 1,000 feet of churches, schools, parks, and libraries. It would also prohibit such shows from public property.

“It’s a shame we even have to bring up a bill like this to protect our children,” Republican Sen. Gary Stubblefield, who sponsored the bill, said before the vote. He noted that the bill would prohibit drag performances intended to appeal to “prurient interest,” a term that’s not defined in the legislation.

Critics warned the restriction was overly broad and could affect theatrical performances that include actors or actresses performing as members of the opposite sex.

“The language of this legislation is so broad that it sweeps any public or private place into this regulation,” said Holly Dickson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “So one’s own home would be subject to the restrictions of this bill.”

Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has not said whether she would sign the restrictions into law if it reaches her desk. Sanders has said she would support legislation similar to Florida’s law banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade.

“The governor believes that in Arkansas we will educate, not indoctrinate our kids and is monitoring bills as they go through the legislative process and will review the final legislation,” spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in an email when asked about the drag show bill.

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