Sanders endorses bill that would limit ‘drag performances’

Legislation protects children, she says

Arkansas Senator Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, sits to the side as Athena Sinclair speaks against SB43, which would classify drag performances as adult businesses, during a meeting of the Senate Committee on City, County ,and Local Affairs on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. More photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday endorsed a contentious bill that would classify "drag performances" as an adult-oriented business.

Asked during a news conference if she would sign Senate Bill 43, Sanders said she was supportive of the legislation in its current form and would "continue to take steps and do things that I believe will protect the children of Arkansas."

"I think we have to do everything -- I've been very clear and talked about this pretty extensively -- to protect children. I think that's what this bill does," Sanders said.

The Arkansas Senate approved the bill Tuesday in a 29-6 vote along party lines, sending it to the House for further action. If approved there, the bill will be sent to Sanders' desk for approval.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, would define a "drag performance" as a show involving at least one performer who exhibits a "gender identity that is different from the performer's gender assigned at birth." The performance must be held before an audience of at least two people for entertainment and has to appeal to the "prurient interest."

The bill has drawn sharp opposition in recent weeks from critics who say it could infringe on the rights of transgender people and ban certain plays.

Stubblefield, like Sanders, has described the bill as a measure needed to protect children.

"I can't think of anything good that can come from taking children and putting them in front of a bunch of grown men dressed like women," Stubblefield told senators before the vote Tuesday. "Morally, we are going down a funnel."

Stubblefield has said his bill would not apply to theatrical performances that feature cross-dressing actors such as Shakespearean dramas.

Democratic senators raised concerns that the bill would limit the rights of transgender people and violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Opponents also have said the phrase "prurient interest" -- which Stubblefield defines as showing "excessive interests in sexual matters -- is not legally well-defined and could apply to plays and events such as drag queens reading storybooks to children.