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Bill that initially targeted drag shows becomes Arkansas law


Bill that initially targeted drag shows becomes Arkansas law

Feb 27, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Tess Vrbin
Bill that initially targeted drag shows becomes Arkansas law
Rally-goers express their opposition to the original version of Senate Bill 43 on the steps of State Capitol in Little Rock on Jan. 19, 2023. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

A bill that originally would have restricted where drag performances can be held in Arkansas but now does not mention the word “drag” at all became law Friday.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed 15 bills on Friday, including Senate Bill 43, which was heavily amended earlier this month in order to survive potential legal challenges. The new law defines an “adult-oriented performance” as one “that is intended to appeal to the prurient interest,” meaning overtly sexual, and features complete or partial nudity and the exposure of real or prosthetic breasts or genitalia.

Originally, the bill defined drag as “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 proposed policy would have classified a drag performance as an “adult-oriented business” similar to pornography, strip clubs and other sexually explicit content and activities. Such businesses are not allowed to be located within a certain distance of schools, parks and other places children frequent.

LGBTQ activists said the bill’s original language was vague enough to criminalize any kind of performance or self-expression by a transgender or nonbinary Arkansan, whether in public or in private.

An earlier amendment on Jan. 30 redefined drag as a performance in which someone “exaggerates sexual aspects of the masculine or feminine body for entertainment purposes.”

The bill’s second amendment was necessary in order to survive a court challenge, said its sponsors, Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) and Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville). Both said the goal of the bill was to protect children from unwilling exposure to sexual behavior.

“The amended House bill targets all sexual performances, so it would not have to stand up to strict scrutiny (while simultaneously protecting more children),” Bentley wrote in a Feb. 2 Facebook post.

Sanders’ office had input on both amendments, as did Attorney General Tim Griffin’s office.

Activists said their statewide dissent and community organizing led to the bill being “gutted” so it no longer targeted drag performers or the LGBTQ community.

The law passed the House on Feb. 6 and passed the Senate on Wednesday, Feb. 22.