On Monday – the commencement of our state’s 2023 legislative session – lawmakers introduced the first bill targeting LGBTQ Arkansans. SB43, filed by Senator Gary Stubblefield (R-26) and Rep. Mary Bentley (R-73), would revise Arkansas law to classify drag “performances” as an “adult-oriented business,” pitting drag brunch and story hour alongside sex shops, peep shows and strip clubs to limit the areas in which drag queens and transgender people may appear. However, the language of SB43 would affect not only people who dress in drag, but also transgender people who dress according to their gender identity.
Laws like SB43 are a red herring and more broadly attempt to erase LGBTQ people from public life by forcing gender norms onto private businesses and individuals. These laws are fueled by the same paranoia banning books from our libraries and censoring teachers for treating all their students the same. But this bill is even more extreme, defining drag performers simply as people who “exhibit a gender identity” different from their gender assigned at birth and “perform” for two or more people.
Fear-mongering interest groups continue their absurdly false and extremely harmful rhetoric conflating transgender people and other LGBTQ people with pedophiles. And these laws have a long history of hurtfully and needlessly criminalizing LGBTQ people, giving police permission to raid bars like Stonewall and arrest trans women simply for existing in public. These bills further endanger people who are transgender and gender-nonconforming and other LGBTQ people who already face significant harassment and discrimination simply for being who they are. Placing the power to decide what’s “appropriate” in the hands of politicians influenced by their own special interests is a slippery slope.
Fortunately, the First Amendment protects us from government limits on our freedom of expression, including how we express our gender. Arkansas families have a First Amendment right to attend these events and performers and business owners have a right to offer them. Drag is a form of creative expression like any other. And transgender people have a right to live and participate in public life.
As organizations that strive to advance equality in Arkansas, we denounce this first anti-LGBTQ bill of the session and all others like it, and we call on all other Arkansans to do the same. Arkansas should be a place that provides equal opportunities for all people and protects all people’s civil rights. We will fight until it is.
Contact your legislators today and remind them that they serve all the people of Arkansas.