Home A project of States Newsroom
Anti-drag legislation passes Arkansas Senate in 29-6 party-line vote


Anti-drag legislation passes Arkansas Senate in 29-6 party-line vote

Jan 24, 2023 | 9:30 pm ET
By Tess Vrbin
Anti-drag legislation passes Arkansas Senate in 29-6 party-line vote
Tien Estell (front), an organizer with transgender advocacy group Intransitive, leads a flash mob in front of the Arkansas Capitol on Monday to protest Senate Bill 43, which would define “a drag performance” as an adult-oriented business. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

A proposed law that would limit where drag performances can occur will head to the Arkansas House of Representatives after passing the Senate on a party-line vote Tuesday.

Senate Bill 43  defines a “drag performance” as at least one person “exhibit[ing] 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” and singing, dancing, lip-syncing or performing in other ways in front of an audience.

The bill classifies a drag performance as an adult business similar to pornography, strip clubs and other sexually explicit content and activities.

Supporters of the bill have said it will protect children from sexual content, while opponents have said the broad definition of drag poses a danger to transgender and nonbinary Arkansans.

All 29 Republicans voted for the legislation, which was authored by Sen. Gary Stubblefield of Branch. Fifteen fellow senators signed on as co-sponsors. State Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) is the House sponsor; 13 other representatives signed on as co-sponsors in the chamber.

Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch)
Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch)

All six Senate Democrats voted against the bill, and four of them spoke against it during the nearly hour-long debate before the vote.

“[This bill] will hurt kids, particularly kids who struggle to feel welcome and safe and accepted and as though they belong in Arkansas,” said Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville). “… I can’t imagine how they feel when they see their Legislature demonize their community and make them feel as though they are somehow a threat to their peers just by being who they are.”

Senate Bill 43 asserts that drag “is intended to appeal to the prurient interest,” meaning overtly sexual in nature. It would outlaw such performances or businesses that stage them on public property or in the proximity of minors, and it would restrict these businesses to areas that children do not frequent.

Stubblefield told the Senate he believes “putting children in front of a bunch of grown men who are dressed like women” cannot have any good outcomes.

“I had one [person] email me and say that I hate drag queens, and that’s a lie,” he said. “I don’t hate anybody. I do hate sin because that’s the way I was raised. I think that I know what’s wrong in God’s eyes because that’s the way I was raised, and I believe the Bible, but I don’t hate any drag queens.”

He added that the bill should not interfere with “woman-less beauty pageants” common at some fairs nor with theater productions in which actors wear clothing that does not match their gender assigned at birth.

Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) disagreed and said the vagueness of the bill could target the ongoing production of Tootsie, a musical in which the male protagonist dresses as a woman, at the Robinson Center in Little Rock. He also said the bill could criminalize LGBTQ pride events.

“This bill is not about governing,” Tucker said. “It’s about bullying, and if you don’t believe me or agree, all you have to do is look at the language in the bill.”

Nobody is making any parent take their children to see anything untoward.

– Senate Minority Whip Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock)

Performance as protest

About 200 people gathered last week on the Capitol steps to protest Senate Bill 43. The rally included a performance of “Seasons of Love” by a group of dozens, including drag performers and transgender Arkansans, since organizers said such a performance might soon be made illegal.

Similarly, transgender advocacy group Intransitive Arkansas held a total of five flash mobs in Central and Northwest Arkansas on Monday, the day the bill was initially expected to be debated and passed by the Senate. The performances in Little Rock, Conway, Fayetteville, Bentonville and Springdale were inspired by Footloose, a film about a Midwestern town in which dancing is illegal.

The flash mobs were marketed as “Joyful Resistance,” and the one in Little Rock was again on the Capitol steps and attracted about 15 people.

“[Legislators] use hate to propagate their ideas, so we’re out here to dance our joy,” Intransitive advocacy and resource organizer Tien Estell told reporters before leading a performance to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

More than two dozen people danced near a busy intersection outside the Washington County Courthouse in Fayetteville on Monday morning before the tour moved to Springdale’s Shiloh Square.

“I think the Arkansas Legislature is under this incorrect impression that Arkansans in general don’t agree with queer people, and I think that’s just all in their heads,” said Intransitive development coordinator Maximiliano Calabotta, who led the Fayetteville performance. “There’s so many LGBTQ people in Arkansas and there’s so many allies in Arkansas… We are here and many of us are queer and we’re not going anywhere.”

Monday’s demonstrations show how “there are better uses of our imagination and there’s a better use of the word community than organizing the state to demonize a group of people” who have given so much, said dancer and performer Blake Worthey.

“It just feels to me like SB43 was not designed to protect anyone, not in any material way,” Worthey said. “It feels bad. It feels negative. It doesn’t give anyone any more life. It doesn’t make anyone’s life easier. It doesn’t protect anyone at all. It actually opens them up to more violence.”

Senate floor debate

Worthey said Senate Bill 43 likely violates the First Amendment right to free expression. Tucker agreed in his speech to the Senate, citing his experience as a lawyer, and added that it goes against the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause as well.

Leding said he believes that Stubblefield’s desire to protect children is sincere but that Senate Bill 43 will not achieve that goal.

“Where do we think Arkansas ranks in children who have seen a drag show?” he said. “I know we’re number two in child food insecurity, fifth in child mortality, seventh in child death by firearm and sixteenth in teen suicide.”

Sen. Tyler Dees (R-Siloam Springs) said he has heard from constituents about those issues and believes the Legislature “can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

“We have an issue that is a cultural battleground right now, and our children are at the forefront,” Dees said.

Senate Majority Leader Blake Johnson (R-Corning) said he agreed with Stubblefield that the bill is not as limiting as its opponents claim it is.

“You can call me intolerant if you want to,” Johnson said. “This bill does not say you can’t dress like a woman. [It says] you can’t sexualize your production.”

Tucker said he would be willing to discuss “protecting children from undue sexual influence,” mentioning the Hooters and Twin Peaks sports bars.

“There’s activity there that is 100% designed to appeal to the prurient interest, and there are kids running around everywhere, but that’s not in this bill,” he said.

Both Tucker and Senate Minority Whip Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) invoked Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ goals for her time in office, as she stated Jan. 10 shortly after being sworn in.

Tucker said he fully supports Sanders’ promise to veto bills that “grow government at the expense of freedom.” Senate Bill 43 does exactly that, particularly because it is worded vaguely enough to target behavior in people’s private homes, he said.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock)
Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock)

Arkansas legislators have put forth bills throughout the state’s history that try to dictate the lives of specific groups, from women to racial minorities to the LGBTQ community, Tucker said.

“When are we going to learn from our history?” he said. “We’ve been trying to control other people’s lives for almost 200 years now, and where has it gotten us?”

Chesterfield referenced Sanders’ goal of allowing parents to choose where their children attend school regardless of where they live. School choice advocates held a rally inside the Capitol last week that included a speech from Sanders. 

“Parents have the choice of where they take their children,” Chesterfield said. “Nobody is making any parent take their children to see anything untoward.”

Religious motives

Stubblefield said his colleagues should ask themselves, “Would God approve of this?” when deciding how to vote on Senate Bill 43.

“When I come into this Capitol, I don’t leave my faith outside,” he said. “It stays with me in here. In fact, most of my votes are based on what I believe and how I was raised as a Christian.”

At the committee hearing last week, Stubblefield referenced a Bible verse, Deuteronomy 22:5, which calls wearing clothing of a different sex an “abomination.”

Anti-drag legislation passes Arkansas Senate in 29-6 party-line vote
Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff)

During Tuesday’s discussion, Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) noted Stubblefield’s references to his faith. Deuteronomy is part of the Old Testament, while Christians are supposed to focus more on the New Testament, Flowers said, citing her own faith.

“The New Testament preaches love for all, regardless,” she said. “It appears to me you’re trying to put a target on people’s backs that are not, according to you, normal.”

Senior Reporter Antoinette Grajeda contributed to this story.