Arkansas House strikes drag shows from bill restricting ‘adult’ performances

The Arkansas House of Representatives on Monday approved a bill to add restrictions to “adult-oriented” performances and businesses but fell short of cracking down on drag shows specifically, as the measure’s proponents in the state Senate had initially set out to do.

Arkansas’s Republican-controlled House voted Monday to strike language referencing drag performances from Senate Bill 43 — legislation introduced in January by state Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R) to prohibit drag shows from taking place on public property or “where a minor can view” them.

Stubblefield’s original bill had defined a “drag performance” as one where an individual exhibits a gender identity inconsistent with their sex assigned at birth and “sings, lip-syncs, dances, or otherwise performs” for an audience of at least two people.

The Senator during a hearing in January argued his bill was intended to protect children from content considered obscene or sexually explicit, which he said includes family-friendly drag shows and drag queen story hours.

“I can’t think of anything good that can come from taking children and putting them in front of a bunch of grown men who are dressed like women,” Stubblefield said last month.

Arkansas House Republicans on Monday made similar arguments but said the legislation shouldn’t single out drag performances.

“This bill is not about whether drag is acceptable,” Republican Rep. Mary Bentley, the bill’s sponsor in the state House, said Monday before the vote. “It’s about whether we should be exposing our children to sexually explicit behavior.”

While the revised legislation no longer mentions drag shows outright, it does broaden the definition of an “adult-oriented performance” to mean a performance that features a person “who appears in a state of nudity” or is seminude and the “purposeful exposure” of a “specific anatomical area,” prosthetic genitalia or breasts or a specific sexual act.

The performance must also appeal to “prurient” interests, which the measure does not clearly define. “Adult-oriented” productions under the bill are unable to legally receive funding including grants and investments from federal, state and local governments.

Arkansas House lawmakers approved the revised legislation Monday in a 78-15 vote. The bill now heads back to the state Senate for consideration.

Stubblefield, the bill’s sponsor in the state Senate, told The Hill in an email that he “certainly would prefer the original language,” but did not indicate whether he would support the revised measure. He said he is looking into the possibility of filing an additional bill “pertaining to this same subject” that will “withstand constitutional scrutiny.”

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) has indicated she will sign the revised bill into law if it reaches her desk.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arkansas in a blog post on Tuesday said state lawmakers’ decision to amend the bill is a step in the right direction but added that the measure “still inherently invites abuse in enforcement, especially considering the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from sponsors and supporters of the bill.”

“Yesterday’s amendment to the bill no longer explicitly targets LGBTQ people. However, it does apply to every person in Arkansas in overly broad ways that clearly violate the First Amendment,” the group wrote. “SB43 still curbs free speech and expression so much that it could even prevent some mainstream artists from performing on public property, and make it illegal for Arkansans to attend those performances.”

More than two dozen bills to restrict or ban drag performances have been introduced in over a dozen states this year, according to the ACLU.

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