Northwest Arkansas Pride relocates events after Walton Arts Center declines drag shows for minors
The arts center cited political and security concerns; Fayetteville Town Center will host drag events instead
LGBTQ+ rights activists hold a flash mob in front of the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock on January 23, 2023, protesting a bill that initially would have banned drag performances in front of minors. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
The Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville has declined to continue hosting youth events featuring drag performers during the final weekend of June, which is LGBTQ+ Pride Month.
The nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Equality announced Wednesday in a press release that the arts center decided not to host “content-appropriate drag story time” or “drag shows suitable for teens,” which make up the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization’s “Youth Zone” during its annual Northwest Arkansas Pride celebrations.
The arts center’s decision comes in light of Act 131, a state law signed in February restricting “adult-oriented performances.” It initially would have banned drag performances in the presence of minors, but references to “drag” were removed after multiple amendments in the legislative process.
Bill that initially targeted drag shows becomes Arkansas law
The arts center did not cite Act 131 or any other law in its decision not to host drag shows around children.
“Our decision was made in the interest of safety concerns for performers, patrons and staff due to the divisive political rhetoric at this time,” the arts center said in a statement via text message Wednesday.
The center is still open to hosting other Pride events and will still host other drag shows, according to the statement.
No one at the arts center consulted NWA Equality before making the decision, Northwest Arkansas Pride Director Richard Gathright said. The center later cited concerns about security in addition to business and politics, he said.
“Pride’s always a security concern. It’s nothing new,” Gathright said. “We work hand in hand with the Fayetteville Police Department to make sure it’s as safe as possible, so we were definitely taken aback when this was announced to us.”
In response to the Walton Art Center’s decision, NWA Equality will stop renting the center’s spaces for its events, according to the press release.
This year’s Youth Zone activities at Northwest Arkansas Pride will be at the Fayetteville Town Center, which has hosted several of NWA Equality’s events in the past. Experience Fayetteville, the city’s tourism marketing organization, is a sponsor of Northwest Arkansas Pride’s annual parade and oversees events at the Town Center.
“We operate in a lawful manner and are not aware of any ordinances or statutes that we are violating as the venue for this event,” Experience Fayetteville CEO Molly Rawn said in a statement. “…[Pride] is one of Fayetteville’s largest special events and is a strong tourism draw for our city, as well as a meaningful celebration for many.”
Gathright said he appreciated that the Youth Zone has a new venue because “canceling it was not an option.” The teen-friendly drag show was added to the Northwest Arkansas Pride festivities last year so that LGBTQ+ youth could have access to drag shows while they are still not legally old enough to enter nightclubs, Gathright said.
“It’s an amazing event for kids that are LGBTQ to be around their own peers and to be safe and wanted and welcome,” he said.
NWA Equality’s press release said the Walton Arts Center’s “decision is surprising, disappointing, and inconsistent,” citing multiple theater performances at the arts center that included actors performing in drag while minors could attend, such as “Tootsie” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
“Further, they have a public-facing policy stating parents are the only ones qualified to determine what is appropriate for their child to view,” the nonprofit said in its press release. “NWA Equality shares their interest in accurately communicating programming to parents.”
Part of the political backlash against drag in recent years has come against drag performers reading books to children in libraries or other public settings. In January, the Faulkner County Library System held a drag story hour and a Christian story hour simultaneously.
State Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, the lead sponsor of Act 131 in the Legislature, said repeatedly that he thought drag queen story hours should not be allowed.
Transgender advocacy group Intransitive Arkansas condemned the Walton Arts Center’s decision Wednesday in an Instagram post, calling it “blatant discrimination” and a misuse of public funds.
The arts center is one of 236 entities that signed onto the Northwest Arkansas Council’s pledge for diversity and inclusion, Intransitive noted.
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Act 131 background
Other states have seen similar conservative-led pushes to keep children away from drag shows. In March, Tennessee passed a law similar to the original version of Act 131, becoming the first state to ban drag performances in front of minors. The law went into effect April 1.
Texas legislators have been considering similar legislation and proposed removing mentions of drag from the bill, while North Dakota legislators amended their own drag ban until it was worded similarly to Arkansas’ Act 131.
The initial version of Act 131, introduced by Republican legislators in January, would have classified drag performances 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.
The bill originally defined drag as “exhibit[ing] a gender identity that is different from the performer’s gender assigned at birth” while performing in front of an audience. LGBTQ+ rights activists and other opponents of the legislation said the 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 amendment to the bill in late January redefined drag as a performance in which someone “exaggerates sexual aspects of the masculine or feminine body for entertainment purposes.”
The legislation was amended again in early February to survive a potential court challenge, its sponsors said. Act 131 instead 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.
Activists celebrated this amendment, saying their statewide dissent and community organizing led to the bill being “gutted” so it no longer targeted drag performers or the LGBTQ+ community.
The Legislature passed several bills this year restricting the behaviors of transgender Arkansans. Those bills include bathroom restrictions for children and adults, pronoun restrictions in schools and the classification of gender-affirming care for transgender minors as potential medical malpractice. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed all of these bills into law.
These laws, including Act 131, will not go into effect until the beginning of August, 90 days after the legislative session concluded this month.
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