A bill targeting drag performances in Arkansas could force the Miss Gay America Pageant, a prominent national drag competition, to relocate to another state.
The proposed law could make it nearly impossible for any venue to host a drag performance in the state without serious repercussions.
Last Tuesday, the Arkansas Senate approved the measure by a party-line vote of 29-6, sending it to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where it is expected to easily pass before heading to the desk of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders for her signature into law.
The bill, SB 43, redefines the term “adult-oriented business” to include any venue that hosts a cabaret or live entertainment show featuring a drag performance.
Under the bill, a “drag performance” is defined as a performance where a person or multiple individuals “exaggerates sexual aspects of the masculine or feminine body for entertainment purposes.”
To qualify as a drag performance, those performers must sing, lip-sync, dance, or perform for an audience of at least two people for entertainment — whether for payment or not — in an act that is “intended to appeal to the prurient interest.”
The bill prohibits “adult-oriented businesses” from permitting minors to view material or entertainment that “appeals to the prurient interest as applied to a minor, depicts sexual behavior in a way that is patently offensive…and lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”
Critics say the bill — like similar measures being introduced in other states — unfairly and categorically deems all drag performances as inherently sexual, and will effectively outlaw any such performances in the state, as any venue hosting a drag show will be defined as an “adult-oriented business,” which has implications beyond those contained in SB 43.
For instance, the part of the state code that the bill amends prohibits such businesses from being located within 1,000 feet of a “child care facility, park, place of worship, playground, public library, recreational area or facility, residence, school, or walking trail.”
Due to the abundance of such spaces, businesses will simply ban drag performances going forward rather than deal with all the penalties and excessive regulations governing such businesses that are already in law.
Violations of the law are treated as Class A misdemeanors — the most serious form of misdemeanor under state law — and can carry a fine of $2,500 per offense and up to a year in jail.
Additionally, under Arkansas law, each day a “violation” continues without being remedied constitutes a separate offense.
As such, it is understandable why any business owner would simply ban drag in their bar, club, restaurant, or theater, rather than risking extensive fines and prison time.
While proponents of the bill argue that legislation is needed to “protect children” from obscene or sexually explicit content, critics charge that the bill will effectively prevent any transgender or gender-nonconforming person — even if not engaged in drag at the time — from performing, publicly speaking, or singing.
Opponents of the proposed law have accused Arkansas lawmakers of deliberately targeting LGBTQ people for simply being visible in society, arguing that the bill will have ramifications beyond simply banning drag shows.
“They’re taking to outlaw drag, an art form 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,” Chris Davis, who performs as drag queen Savvy Savant, a former Miss Gay Arkansas America, told The Daily Beast.
“I can choose to go out in drag, but a trans person does not have that luxury,” Davis continued. “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.”
For the Miss Gay America pageant, which has been hosted multiple times in Arkansas (one of the pageant’s former owners, Norma Christie was the first crowned Miss Gay America and a longtime Arkansas resident), the bill has serious implications.
While Little Rock’s Robinson Center has played host to the pageant several times, most recently during the 2023 Miss Gay America Pageant in January, organizers are now searching for a venue outside the state, reports Little Rock NBC affiliate KARK.
Michael Dutzer, the CEO and executive producer of Mad Angel Entertainment, the production company that owns and operates Miss Gay America, said that the Robinson Center had previously offered the pageant a contract to use the Robinson Center through 2026, but retracted that contract after SB 43 was introduced.
“They were like, ‘We don’t know what this bill is going to do. We don’t know if you should sign because we don’t want to like sign a contract and then push you away,'” Dutzer said. “Now we’re looking at moving to another city because we don’t know what the future of the show would be here.”
If any drag performance becomes classified as an “adult-oriented business,” the possibility of finding a venue large enough to host the contestants, other drag performers, backup dancers, and approximately 2,000 or so fans who regularly attend the pageant — not to mention a venue willing to subject itself to the nanny-state-type oversight that adult businesses are placed under by the state, even after the pageant is over — is highly unlikely.
Robert York, the owner of Cocker Productions, which produces the Miss Gay D.C. America pageant, worries about the political motivations behind bills like SB 43, which appear to give carte blanche to Republicans to attack minority communities and police behavior simply to appeal to voters’ prejudices and misconceptions about drag.
“I think it’s just a way for the religious right to cling on to anything they can to stir up the base and stir up any kind of hate-filled propaganda that they have,” York told Metro Weekly. “The female impersonators and drag queens are not doing anything to damage anything in the community. If anything, they’re on the front lines raising money for countless programs or individuals, being on the front lines to help people. And here they are being persecuted because of their art form.
“But I don’t see the right wing or the religious right in going after college boys who are dressing in drag for one of their fraternity fundraisers or school outings like ‘Reverse Day,'” he noted.
York said producers of the various state pageants and Miss Gay America organizers had an “open and candid” conversation at this year’s pageant, and determined that if SB 43 does pass, and “is signed by the awful, evil Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” next year’s pageant will not be held in Arkansas.
“I think it needs to be moved to a state where people understand that this is an art form and we need to embrace art overall, so that people have the freedom of expression,” said York, adding, “Being able to pass legislation to shut down any kind of art is disturbing to me. And it should be disturbing to the rest of Arkansas.”
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