UPDATED: Arkansas venue’s CEO explains concerns about youth-focused Pride events

Walton Arts Center leadership claims last year’s events restricted parental access; NWA Equality and community members say not true

By: - May 24, 2023 10:03 pm

Drag performers and LGBTQ+ rights activists gathered on the Arkansas Capitol steps on January 19, 2023 to protest a bill that would have banned drag performances in the vicinity of minors. The bill was amended to no longer mention "drag" and was signed into law in February. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

This article has been updated to include new comments from Northwest Arkansas Pride director Richard Gathright. 

Walton Arts Center leadership says adults were not going to be allowed in one of the youth-focused areas at Northwest Arkansas Pride this year, citing this as a reason the nonprofit behind June’s LGBTQ+ festivities decided to move the events to another venue in Fayetteville.

The explanation, provided in an internal memo sent to arts center staff on Tuesday, contradicts the account of the nonprofit, Northwest Arkansas Equality, about the rules and standards for Pride’s “Youth Zone.”

Arts center president and CEO Peter Lane and other executive staff “voiced concerns about plans to restrict parent, guardian, and caregiver access to the Youth Zone and drag performances for minors” during Pride planning meetings with NWA Equality earlier this year, Lane wrote in the memo that the Arkansas Advocate obtained from an anonymous source.

“We proposed allowing parent, guardian, and caregiver access to all age-specific events. We also proposed a main stage drag performance, that would be open to the general public,” Lane’s memo says.

“Ultimately, Northwest Arkansas Equality decided that it could not move forward with our requested changes for two of the six age-specific acdtivities and chose to seek a different venue for all its events. We respect this decision and have offered our financial and logistical assistance in securing another venue,” the memo says.

Northwest Arkansas Pride director Richard Gathright said on Thursday that the Fayetteville Town Center, where Pride events will now be held, has “no visual barriers” between the planned Teen Zone and the designated adult area — which was an issue last year.

Venue change stirs resignations, protest

The arts center has faced backlash since Northwest Arkansas Pride announced May 10 that it would move the Youth Zone to the Fayetteville Town Center, saying the Walton Arts Center had decided “drag performances where minors are permitted are no longer allowed in their facilities.”

Protesters gathered on Saturday outside the center, and nine members of the board of directors have resigned within the past week.

On Wednesday, comedian Tig Notaro canceled a scheduled June 23 performance at the Walton Arts Center, according to a 40/29 News report quoting an email from the venue. The email said the cancellation was “due to a scheduling conflict” and that full refunds will be given.

That Friday is also when a march, rally and festival celebrating transgender people are scheduled, according to a Northwest Arkansas Pride calendar of Pride week events.


Youth Zone

The Youth Zone is made up of “content-appropriate drag story time” and “drag shows suitable for teens,” the latter of which is a venue called the Teen Zone, according to NWA Equality. 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 previously told the Arkansas Advocate.

Jennifer Wilson, the arts center’s public relations director, said adults were not allowed in the Teen Zone last year.

“We were not aware of this policy until the day of the events and made a note to follow up on it this year,” Wilson said in an email Wednesday.

NWA Equality said in a statement last week that parents and guardians “are welcome and encouraged to attend spaces” with children of all ages in the Youth Zone. The Teen Zone is aimed at children 13 and older and “has a designated parent/guardian area,” according to the statement.

Gathright said earlier this week that this year’s Youth Zone events are supposed to be “fundamentally” the same as last year’s. 

He clarified his group’s position on Thursday, saying Pride organizers last year sought to comply with the arts center’s fire code occupancy restrictions but still wanted as many young people to enjoy the festivities as possible. That’s why they discouraged some parents from accompanying their children into the Teen Zone, Gathright said. The designated adult area was “right around outside,” and adult chaperones who had passed background checks were supervising the teens inside.

Adam Black, who attended Northwest Arkansas Pride last year, said Tuesday on Facebook that he was told he could accompany his teenage child in the Teen Zone. He posted a screenshot of a message from the arts center claiming Northwest Arkansas Pride wanted to restrict adults’ access to this area.

“Adults without kids are the ones that were not allowed to go [in the teens’ area], as I understood it,” Black wrote. “The WAC is pretending their position is justified and it wholly is not. The CEO clearly failed to understand what was happening.”

Gathright said Thursday that Pride organizers “didn’t want random adults walking through the teen zone” and wanted to ensure that an incident last year in which an adult “accosted” a transgender youth did not happen again.

This year, organizers wanted to give parents a better view of the Teen Zone festivities by moving the stage within view of the door and providing a CCTV camera feed, he said.

Evelyn Rios Stafford, a Washington County Justice of the Peace, also contacted the arts center on Facebook and sent a copy of its response to the Advocate. In its response, the center again claimed parents’ and guardians’ access to youth areas was restricted and said children must be accompanied by adults on the premises.

A Facebook message from the Walton Arts Center explaining its concerns about Northwest Arkansas Pride’s Youth Zone (Screenshot courtesty of Evelyn Rios Stafford)

The arts center’s own website says only children under 13 must be accompanied by adults.

“As a parent, you are the only person qualified to determine what is appropriate for your child,” the parental guidance policy states.

“Safety concerns”

In light of Northwest Arkansas Pride’s May 10 announcement, Walton Arts Center officials told the Arkansas Advocate that the “decision was made in the interest of safety concerns for performers, patrons and staff” in light of “divisive political rhetoric.”

The center released a statement May 18 saying it was “not an easy decision, or one that we took lightly, but is one we believe was necessary” It promised to “learn from this experience.”

The board of directors held a special meeting the same day, and board members started resigning the following day. Simmons was one of multiple departing members who said they could not remain on the board in good conscience.

“This decision by the CEO was not only misguided and insensitive, but also deeply hurtful and disrespectful to the LGBTQ community,” former member Mervin Jebaraj said in an email explaining his resignation to Fayetteville city officials. He was one of five city-appointed board members who resigned from the 22-member WAC board.

Lane’s memo Tuesday and the center’s statement last week apologized to those hurt by the decision and reiterated concerns about safety and security surrounding Northwest Arkansas Pride’s teen-friendly drag show. The center will still host drag events and will not prohibit minors from being present, Lane wrote.

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“The safety concerns that were mentioned in our earlier statements were referencing the uptick in protests and threats targeting drag events,” he said in the memo. “We sincerely apologize that in some instances that was incorrectly interpreted as protecting minors from drag performers.”

The memo also said the center’s “position is rooted in our desire to avoid any optics that could be co-opted and leveraged to undermine or harm the LGBTQIA+ community.”

Wilson, the center spokesperson, said Wednesday that staff “voiced concerns over how an age-specific performance of drag could be leveraged” in this way.

In response to several former board members’ frustrations that the decision did not come before them for a vote, Lane’s memo explained that the board of directors was not required to vote on “an operational decision about an event rather than an internal policy change,” 

The board’s charter states that “operational oversight rests exclusively with the WAC board.”

When asked whether the clause applied to executive staff’s recent decision about Pride events, Wilson responded via email:

“The Board of Directors was made aware of this decision by the executive team following the initial discussions. The decision was also shared with the Walton Arts Center’s DEI Committee. As this was an operational decision about an event rather than an internal policy change, the Board of Directors was not required to hold a vote. This decision impacts only these events intended specifically for minors this year.”

Rios Stafford, Arkansas’ first openly transgender elected official, said the arts center’s decision and the fallout have “revealed serious and troubling governance issues.”

“Clearly the magnitude of the impact this has had on WAC’s board, staff, funding, and operations, indicates this should have been a decision that the board was fully involved with,” Stafford said.

The controversy over the Walton Arts Center’s decision follows passage of Act 131, a state law signed in February restricting “adult-oriented performances.” The law initially would have banned drag performances in the presence of minors, but references to “drag” were removed after multiple amendments in the legislative process.

The arts center has not cited Act 131 or any other law in its statements of concern about Northwest Arkansas Pride’s Youth Zone.


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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.