Feature writing

LGBTQ+ issues

Arkansas drag ban is the cover for bigger anti-LGBTQ attack, activists say

The Daily Beast

January 29, 2023

Arkansas’ SB 43 would not just ban drag performances, activists say, but also curtail trans and non-binary people’s public lives—and endanger LGBTQ venues and Pride events.

In the 1995 movie, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, the straight residents of the fictional Midwest town of Snydersville—led by Stockard Channing—face down Sheriff Dollard (Chris Penn), dressed up to the nines in pink and feather boas, with a simple phrase: “I am a drag queen.” In the movie the locals do it to defend, and show their support, for the three queens played by Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo—and to show the absurdity of the sheriff’s bigotry and prejudice.

Today in real-life Arkansas, Jeremy Stuthard—drag persona, Taylor Madison Monroe—says he would like straight Arkansans to join the LGBTQ community to recreate the scene outside the state legislature in Little Rock. Stuthard, and other performers and LGBTQ activists, say straight Arkansans’ help and vocal allyship—and that of big business—are vital when it comes to fighting the onward progress of Senate Bill 43, which if passed could also—as presently worded—target trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people, as well as LGBTQ venues and others that hold drag events throughout the state.

The bill states a drag performance in Arkansas may only take place in an “adult-oriented business,” meaning an “adult arcade, an adult bookstore or video store, an adult cabaret, an adult live entertainment establishment, an adult motion picture theater, an adult theater, a massage establishment that offers adult services, an escort agency, or a nude model studio. It may not take place on public property, or where a minor can view what the adult-oriented business is.”

Under SB 43, a drag performance is defined as one in which one or more performers “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; and sings, lip-synchs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience of at least two persons for entertainment, whether performed for payment or not; and that is intended to appeal to the prurient interest.”

Of the 185 anti-LGBTQ bills being tracked by the ACLU in state legislatures so far this year, SB 43 is progressing at a speedy pace. Yesterday, Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed a ban on gender-affirming care for youth into law in that state—although campaigners may take some heart, as NBC News reported, that less than 10 percent of 2022’s anti-LGBTQ bills became law, according to a Human Rights Campaign survey.

SB 43 passed 29 votes to 6 in the Arkansas Senate on Tuesday; next stop the House. Both chambers have Republican supermajorities, and the bill, activists say, will likely end up on the desk of newly elected Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who has shown an early appetite for stoking conservative culture wars, having already signed an executive order to prohibit “indoctrination” and Critical Race Theory in schools. The former Trump White House spokesperson has also banned most state agencies from using the term “Latinx.”

Last year, then-Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a bill banning trans kids in Arkansas from participating in school sports, but vetoed a ban on gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth—still the subject of an ongoing legal battle. Activists are not holding out much hope that Huckabee Sanders will decline to sign any anti-drag, anti-LGBTQ, anti-trans bills into law.

SB 43 has become known as an anti-drag bill, and if passed it would be the first of its kind in recent times though hardly a historical first—laws aimed at punishing those who trespass against traditional modes of gender presentation date back to the 1850’s. But it is SB 43’s vague language and definitions—intentional, many activists say—that make it even more insidious than simply a “drag ban.”

For one, an “adult entertainment” venue in Arkansas must not be within 1,000 feet (304.8 meters) of churches, schools, parks and libraries, and activists say many of the LGBTQ venues where drag shows take place at night fall within such a geographical proximity. Under the definition of the new law, trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming people could be criminalized if they, for example, sang in church or at karaoke. The bill also defines drag as a sexualized activity rather than performance, and its imprecise definitions of how the law would be transgressed—or what “prurient interest” means—puts a swathe of performances, people, and venues at risk of arrest and prosecution.

Abs Hart, a trans man and drag performer (and former Mr Trans USA), told The Daily Beast that it was “disheartening” to see the support the bill was getting so far in the legislature. “It has a pretty big impact on my life for several reasons. I’ve been a drag entertainer in this community for about 11 years now. I’m also a transgender man, and the wording of the bill is really so ambiguous for people like me that it really comes across as I can’t even go out in public and live my life. If I go out and sing karaoke, I would be considered as providing adult entertainment because I am not dressed appropriately for the gender I was assigned at birth.

“Aside from that, I am a drag entertainer. It is an art form I enjoy. The bill will not make it easier for me or anyone to be trans or queer, or allow me to bring joy to people, or show people how to be themselves. Who’s deciding this? Where does the line get drawn? It would be against the law for me to sing karaoke around two or more people.”

Republican Sen. Gary Stubblefield, who proposed the bill, did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast, but has previously spoken about “protecting children.” He has said colleagues should ask themselves “if God would approve” of drag queens before casting their vote. Of drag queen story hours, Stubblefield has said, “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.”

He has also said: “As a Christian I believe—for example, in Deuteronomy 25—I believe the Bible when it says if a man dresses like a woman and a woman dresses like a man, it is an abomination to God,” and “Children are being exposed today to things that 30, 40, 50 years ago we couldn’t even imagine.”

“Someone emailed me and said that I hated drag queens,” Stubblefield has said. “That’s a lie. I don’t hate anybody. I do hate sin, because that’s the way I was raised.”

Drag activist Athena Sinclair (Miss Gay Arkansas America, 2021), who addressed the Senate on the issue, told The Daily Beast that the bill would “decimate” bars and other venues that are “safe spaces” for LGBTQ Arkansans—and criminalize trans people, drag queens, and nonbinary people even if they were speaking in front of legislators as she just did. The Miss Gay America pageant could not happen any more because it would be against the law to do so in a theater.

Sinclair has spoken to a producer of a play featuring a drag queen character who was now concerned they would not be able to mount the production without breaking the law should it pass. “Everybody is really, really scared. It affects both a lot of people’s way of lives and how we express ourselves, and for trans people how they are their authentic selves.

“Arkansas keeps passing laws targeting the LGBTQ community. At this point we’re just trying to protect ourselves, and make sure we’re as safe as possible. We have been in this fight for several years now. One minute we are accepted, the next we are under attack. It’s a pendulum. Now it’s drag queens. At this point LGBTQ people in Arkansas have become numb—but we’re going to keep fighting. They pass an anti-LGBTQ bill, we go to court because it’s unconstitutional. It’s such a waste of time and taxpayer dollars when Arkansas is ranked so low in education and in regards to child hunger. That’s what we should be focused on—not spreading hatred.”

“Drag is nothing but art,” Sinclair told The Daily Beast. “These people are under the impression that a guy dressing up as a lady is sexual. That’s not what drag is. Drag is for anybody.”

Chris Davis, who performs as Savvy Savant—the reigning (and 50th) Miss Gay Arkansas America, crowned last August—emphasizes drag’s long and influential history in Arkansas. “Norma Kristie, the very first Miss Gay Arkansas, was the first Miss Gay America in 1972. Norma went on to purchase the Miss Gay America pageant—the longest-running gay pageant system in the world—and run it for the next 30 years.” Miss Gay America 2023 took place at Little Rock’s Robinson Center just last week.

“It is not just performers losing their jobs, but everything we built here extending out to the rest of the world that is at risk,” Davis told The Daily Beast. “They’re taking to outlaw drag, an artform not solely performed by LGBTQ performers, but that was created by the LGBTQ community as a form of self-expression—and trying to classify trans people as drag performers who wouldn’t be able to speak at church assemblies or do a lot of things. I can choose to go out in drag, but a trans person does not have that luxury. If this law passes, you’d have to ask a trans person to be in drag or dress as another gender so they were not breaking the law.

“This bill is an anti-LGBTQ stepping stone to something much larger. The bill is not about protecting children from sexual deviants, but about making people present themselves as the gender they were assigned at birth—whatever any of that means, and who gets to decide it. It won’t be the end of anti-LGBTQ attacks in our legislature this year.”

Davis said that every single LGBTQ venue which hosts drag events he knows of is within a thousand feet of a church, or school, or daycare, or park—and is therefore going to break the new law if passed just by dint of its physical location. “One of our biggest stages is next to a junior baseball park, except we do our performances at 11 o clock at night.”

Stuthard said the bill was “very frustrating. It sexualizes drag, and the loose wording of it attacks many aspects of the community I belong to. They say it’s not against trans or non-binary people, but how can we believe that when it’s all so badly defined and we don’t know how it will be put into action. And if I was a conservative parent I’d be mad because it was controlling my right to parent.”

Stuthard said Fayetteville, where he is based, was a liberal town where venues seemed determined to continue to host drag performances for as long as they can within the law. The restaurant where he performs a weekly bingo-based show is thinking of raising its age limit to 18 and up.

How the law would be practically enacted is a worrying mystery for the LGBTQ community. Holly Dickson, executive director for the ACLU of Arkansas, told The Daily Beast that much of the law is in “the eye of the beholder, in terms of judges, prosecuting attorneys and whoever is responding from. the police department. This is such a broad, sweeping bill with incredible implications in terms of the people it will affect. Those who are bringing it say it won’t affect trans or gender nonconforming people, but the bill doesn’t make that clear.”

“Governor Hutchinson vetoed the gender affirming healthcare bill after meeting with trans people, and educating himself on the issues and science,” Dickson said. “We hope the current governor does the same before signing any bills. It remains to be seen if she will.”

Dickson called on major businesses like Walmart and Tyson Foods, as well as organizations like the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce (ASCC) and the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District (NAEDD), to make their pro-LGBTQ voices heard. “Business should be speaking out, everybody should be speaking out, that the Arkansas General Assembly does not speak for all Arkansans.”

Walmart, Tyson Foods, and NAEDD did not return The Daily Beast’s requests for comment. In an email, Randy Zook, President/CEO of Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, told The Daily Beast: “No comment. No position on this one.” (Last year, the State Chamber of Commerce filed an amicus brief supporting campaigners fighting the ban on gender-affirming healthcare.)

Megan Tullock, director of programs and advocacy at Northwest Arkansas Equality (NWA Equality), told The Daily Beast that the bill would legally imperil the region’s Pride event, of which drag is a key part. The law would also “apply to a trans violinist who came here as part of a symphony, or a play that features drag. Who is deciding what gender-appropriate clothing is, or what ‘prurient’ means? Who is defining the appropriate use of lipstick, or legislating the meaning and gender of clothing and accessories? Drag shows don’t just happen in bars.

“As society has shifted, and queer people have been allowed to participate in regular life, our artforms, like drag, are also found in public. Chicago came to a local theater here. The drummer was trans. Does that mean that music or theater venue can’t hold the event without being known as an ‘adult’ venue? The musical Tootsie was just here in a theater. That has drag in it. Is that ‘prurient’?”

Tullock, who believes the passing of the legislation is inevitable, said it had been crafted to directly target Pride events like the one NWA Equality organizes. “All you need is one person to file suit, claiming the event is ‘prurient.’ The show will go on, but we are concerned. It impacts everything the safety of all our events, how we program events, and our ability to fundraise. We have to talk to our attorneys. Nothing we do is ‘prurient,’ but this law is all about what lies in the eye of the beholder, and possibly a straight, bigoted gaze. We hear a lot about how Pride was once protest. Well, everything is old is new again, and so maybe we get to go back to being a protest instead of a celebration.”


‘They are deliberately lying about us’

SB 43 had been generated from the right-wing furore over drag queen story hours, Stuthard told The Daily Beast. “Conservatives scream, ‘You’re spending taxpayer money on this.’ Well, LGBTQ people are taxpayers too, and there are things my taxes fund that I don’t support, but do you see me shouting about it? They also talk about sexualizing and indoctrinating children, which goes to show they have never been to a drag queen story hour. If they did, they’d find someone in a costume reading to children.

“They accuse us of ‘sexualizing’ things, when we are just LGBTQ people. They are deliberately lying about us. If you don’t want your kids to a drag show, don’t take them. This is the land of the free. We should be able to do a drag show, and you should have the freedom to come to it or not. If you come: great, you’ll leave with a smile. If not, well you’re missing out but we’ll understand.”

For Tullock, SB 43 and other bills are “100 percent about putting LGBTQ people out of the public realm, to say, ‘We don’t believe you exist. You’re just sick and we don’t want you here.’ They want us to be afraid and to go away and be dead. That is the overarching purpose of this legislation. One of the ways people maintain power is to scapegoat groups who are a threat to their power—and a really easy way to do that is to use the rhetoric of the LGBTQ community as groomers around anything involving children. It’s all false. A groomer is Larry Nasser, a coach, family member, or pastor. A groomer is not a drag queen reading to children.”

The ACLU’s Dickson said the bill was the latest in a historically long line of anti-LGBTQ laws in Arkansas—like not including discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity in civil rights law in the ‘90s, then preventing same-sex parents from fostering or adopting children, “right through to last year banning trans kids from school sports and attempting to ban their healthcare.” Testimony around a bill restricting student bathroom access according to birth-assigned gender was also heard this week.

“It’s scary and hard living in Arkansas,” Hart told The Daily Beast. “I moved here in 2011, and it’s a beautiful state. It’s known as ‘the Natural State,’ and it really is. There is so much beauty and so many things to do outdoors here, but being a trans, non-binary, or queer person you really wake up wondering if you’re going to be safe, if you’re going to have rights, if you’re going to be able to go out, to live your life, go to the store, to go about your day without someone causing a problem. I wish more people would understand we are truly just trying to live our lives like everyone else.” Hart laughed. “I don’t want to be in the bathroom any longer than I have to be, and I think a lot of people feel the same way.”

Dickson believes SB 43 to be unconstitutional, and—in the event of its passing—the ACLU and other organizations are preparing to challenge it in the courts. “It sends a message to trans Arkansans that they are not welcome in the state of Arkansas, and that’s a message I think Arkansans have gotten loud and clear. I also think that message is out of step with how most Arkansans think and feel.”

Preparing for a legal challenge, Tullock told The Daily Beast, required “queer heroism” on the part of all those willing to challenge discriminatory laws and the upheaval doing so brought to their lives. “You become a target. My partner saw a decal on a car which said, ‘Bring back bullying.’ That’s what Republicans are doing on a legislative and cultural level to LGBTQ people, and standing up to bullies is really hard, especially when they are in charge of the state. This bill doesn’t just affect drag performers. It affects cis straight parents, kids, businesses, tourism. These bills have a lot of impact. Businesses should be speaking out—not as a favor to the queer community, but to say ‘These bills have a demonstrably adverse effect on us as businesses.’”

Davis said that there was another legal prohibition around selling alcohol at what are defined as lewd performances and artworks—and so if a drag performance comes to be defined as such, then that venue could not serve alcohol. “This would have massive economic downstream effects. Miss Gay America brings $1 million to Little Rock. It also takes a central part of LGBTQ culture and community away, and takes us back to the days of drag performances in backrooms, and performers trying to dodge the police.”

The community has pulled together in opposing SB 43—and other bills. Davis told The Daily Beast, “Republicans like to talk about traditional family values. Well, I have never seen the LGBTQ family and community come together as I have to see them fight this and other bills. I try to be optimistic. I hope the bill doesn’t pass and has more resistance against it in the House of Representatives than in the Senate. And big business needs to be involved. You can find a Bible-thumping Republican politician who will vote for this, but if they know their vote is going to destroy their re-election fund they’ll vote against it. And Walmart has a lot of LGBTQ employees. It should be speaking out on behalf of them.”

Hart feels “very torn” about living in Arkansas. “I would obviously like to live somewhere where I am in constant danger of losing my ability to live. I am in my mid-30s, and have been physically transitioning for several years. I feel I have to stay to continue to fight, to set an example for younger people. It’s hard enough being a trans adult, but being a child or teenager still trying to figure out your place in life—whether you’re trans or some level of queerness—there has to be a presence here so those kids know it’s OK and they’re going to make it and that somebody is going to fight for them.”

To Arkansas’ legislators, Hart would like to say: “You are here to protect people, and this bill is not going to protect anyone. It will bring harm to queer people who live here, and bring harm to children. Solve actual problems, and please let us continue to express our art and live our lives.”

“Drag artists are part of the backbone of the LGBTQ community,” Stuthard told The Daily Beast. “People call us when something burns down and they need to do a benefit show. We entertain during Pride, we work our butts off in 102-degree weather, and we make sure people have a good time. The bill happening so fast is saddening. The long-haul optimist in me hopes someone will catch some sense, and realize they are infringing on our freedoms and it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money and everyone’s time. I’m not about to quit. I’m here for the fight.”

Stuthard thinks there is “much more” attempted anti-LGBTQ lawmaking to come in Arkansas, and so his suggested To Wong Foo recreation could not be more urgent.

“It would be heart-melting if straight Arkansans came out and supported us like that down at the state house. Whether they are a drag entertainer or not, to stand with us and say ‘I am a drag queen,’ would be amazing—to show the dangerous and stupid ambiguity and vagueness of this bill, and recognize that drag is a form of entertainment that should never be censored, and is not sexualizing at all.” Stuthard paused and laughed. “Sometimes I just want to lip-synch to Celine Dion for four and a half minutes, and I can guarantee you there is nothing sexual about that.”