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OPINION | GREG HARTON: Lawmakers lash out at drag show performances for children in an unsurprising test of limits on expression

by Greg Harton | January 22, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.

I sat in the Walton Arts Center theater watching a man on stage dressed as a woman, affecting the mannerisms typically associated with femininity and singing/speaking in a soprano voice.

So I thought of the state Legislature. That's probably not what a live production of "Tootsie" usually brings to mind.

The show was an excellent telling of a Broadway actor unable to find work because his past behaviors have soured some directors on his involvement, so he disguises himself as a woman to escape his reputation as he auditions for new roles.

Earlier that day, senators at the state Capitol had devoted time to Senate Bill 43 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield of Branch (Franklin County). The bill concerns itself with what I was watching on the Walton Arts Center stage: men in dresses.

SB 43 would classify so-called drag performances as adult-oriented businesses. According to the bill, a violation of the law would occur when three conditions are met. A show would have to (a) include at least one performer exhibiting a gender identity that is different from the performer's gender assigned at birth; (b) be performed before an audience of at least two people for entertainment; and (c) appeal to "the prurient interest."

OK, I guess that let's "Tootsie" off the hook. The whole plot of the show centered on a performer dressed opposite his gender at birth. And, as far as I could tell from the roars of laughter, entertainment was the result. But I didn't get the impression the show was exciting any lustful thoughts. Well, there was that one suspicious dude three rows in front of me, but I'm no mind reader.

State senators on the City, County and Local Affairs Committee backed the measure Thursday on its way to consideration by the full Senate.

If a guy wants to dress in drag to perform on stage, whose business is it of mine? Despite the subject matter of "Tootsie," a drag show isn't really my preferred form of entertainment, but nobody's forcing me to go see one. I'm not a fan of opera, either, but that may just be me skirting the issue.

Senate Bill 43 doesn't concern itself with adults playing to adults. Protecting children is the declared intent. Chief among the concerns are those Drag Queen Story Hours at some public libraries, where men dressed elaborately as women read to young children.

Should anyone be shocked lawmakers in conservative Arkansas would react?

The San Francisco organization that originated the concept promotes such events as a push to inspire empathy, creativity and authenticity. "DSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models," the group's website says.

Newly installed Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders just signed an executive order to end state use of "Latinx" by state agencies because it's a gender-neutral term. Why would anyone not expect a reaction to drag performers specifically organizing events for young children?

The bill's advocates say it's not intended to quash the expression in drag performances but to protect "innocent children."

"Drag is not this sexually oriented thing that you've been told that it is," said Athena Sinclair, who described drag performances as art.

Naturally, when circumstances involve art and expression, one has to inquire as to whether First Amendment rights are infringed. As usual, it's the more edgy forms of expression that establish or shift the boundaries of how far government can go with restrictions.

Organizing and promoting drag performances in front of children in Arkansas is exactly the kind of envelope pushing that's designed to spark a reaction. And it did. Once our Legislature adopts the law -- and it will -- the outcome will be left to men and women wearing black robes.

Print Headline: Drag shows? Can’t make this stuff up

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