LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The Arkansas legislature took its first step to regulate drag performances in the state Thursday. Senate Bill 43 passed unanimously in committee. A senator on the committee said it will go before the full Senate for a vote as early as Monday.
While the senators voted this bill is necessary to protect children, most of the public comment was against it. In fact, seven people signed against it. While only Family Council Action Committee President Jerry Cox spoke in favor of it.
Regardless, the controversial bill classifying some drag performances as adult-oriented businesses breezed through its hearing in the Senate Committee on City, County, and Local Affairs, but not without debate.
“This is a bridge for hate,” argued Ally Thomlinson who spoke against SB43.
“Children are worth preserving their innocence,” Republican State Senator for District 29, Jim Petty, said.
Senate Bill 43 would outlaw drag performances in front of kids under 18 if it meets all three requirements. Drag performances would be included if they:
(a) 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
(b) Sings, lip-synchs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience of at least two persons for entertainment, whether performed for payment or not; and
(c) That is intended to appeal to the prurient interest.
People on both sides seem to agree that phrasing has caused confusion.
“Prurient is too vague,” said Jason Bailey, who spoke against SB43.
Even Republican State Senator for District 32 Joshua Bryant said, “The best definition that has been given to me is you’ll know it when you see it.”
ACLU Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dixon said the language is overreaching.
“Under the language of the bill, it seems that there would be no place for a trans person who expresses their gender identity different from their sex assigned to be allowed to perform in any way karaoke, poetry reading, Church choir, school play, pride event,” Dixon said.
Bill Sponsor State Senator for District 26 Gary Stubblefield (R) explained something prurient means it “shows excessive interest in sexual matters.” So, events such as drag queen story time would unaffected.
“This will not stop Shakespear or any other kind of shows like that, as long as they stay within the guidelines of what this bill lays out. Because all these words are connected with the word ‘and’, they would have to violate each one of these criteria in order for this bill to kick in,” Stubblefield said.
“Then what’s the point of the bill?”, asked Athena Sinclair who spoke out against the bill as someone who regularly performs drag.
“We don’t have any cases where kids are being sexualized by drag queens. I have on a full dress, you can only see my face,” Sinclair argued. “It doesn’t make any sense to me other than hate.”
It does make sense to protect kids for the majority of state senators who passed it in committee.
“They call them wholesome entertainment. They’re not. They’re far from wholesome entertainment,” Stubblefield argued last week when he filed the bill.
Senate Bill 43 still has several steps if it wants to become law. Its next step is to be passed by the full Senate, and the committee couldn’t give an exact day for it to be heard there yet, but they said it could be as early as Monday.
If it passes in the Arkansas Senate. An Arkansas House of Representatives committee would be next, followed by the full House. Its final test would be a signature from the governor.