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Despite threats, no state has an active law banning drag in front of kids


There was a lot of discussion among Republicans this year about banning or restricting drag performances in front of children. But across the country, those attempts at state legislation largely failed. Here's KUAR's Josie Lenora in Little Rock.

JOSIE LENORA, BYLINE: In Arkansas this year, a bill that would have banned drag performances in front of children was met with large public backlash. Republican State Senator Gary Stubblefield championed and sponsored the bill. Here he is back in January talking about how he thinks drag performance could harm children and take away their innocence.


GARY STUBBLEFIELD: I can't think of any redeeming quality, anything good, that can come from taking children and putting them in front of a bunch of grown men who are dressed like women.

LENORA: The bill Stubblefield sponsored would have banned performances in front of children that involved cross-dressing and that appealed to the, quote, "prurient interest." That term, prurient, shows up in a lot of states' bills on the subject. In committee, Stubblefield was asked by fellow lawmakers what the term means in a legal context.


STUBBLEFIELD: That word prurient interest means excessive interest in sexual matters.

LENORA: But critics feel the bill wouldn't hold up to basic legal scrutiny.

JT MORRIS: Most drag shows do not appeal to the prurient interest. Even if they did, saying something appeals to the prurient interest, under the First Amendment, is not enough to regulate it.

LENORA: JT Morris is an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a pro-free speech group. Morris says drag bills are overly broad and could apply to many different kinds of performances.

MORRIS: Well, you can't pass a state law based on your disagreement with somebody's viewpoint. That's a textbook First Amendment violation.

LENORA: And that could be one reason why, in at least 15 states, bills regulating drag performance died or were completely watered down on their way to becoming law. Three states did manage to pass restrictions. In Tennessee, a Trump-appointed U.S. district judge, Thomas Parker, temporarily blocked that state's ban on drag performance in front of children due to the law's constitutional vagueness. In a ruling, Judge Parker says, whether some of us may like it or not, the First Amendment protects even indecent speech.

A similar law in Florida is temporarily blocked. For a while, the only state with a drag ban in effect was Montana. A judge temporarily blocked that one, too, clearing the way for drag events just before the start of Montana Pride. Jeremy Stuthard, a drag performer in Arkansas, says to him, drag is about showmanship, not sex.

JEREMY STUTHARD: I do drag as an art form. I take a decent-looking guy and turn him into a statuesque Barbie doll and have a great time and put smiles on people's faces. And that's all I really try to do.

LENORA: He says most children he meets seem to have a good time at drag brunches and story hours.

STUTHARD: They listen and they enjoy. And they have their little popcorn or their little candies or whatever they get during that time. And they just enjoy a story from an actor who happens to be in a costume.

LENORA: Ultimately, the law regulating drag in Arkansas was amended until it hardly resembled a drag ban. Now the law, which passed by large margins, basically regulates stripping, not drag shows. Senator Stubblefield didn't write the amendment, but he said he agreed to it after he spoke with Attorney General Tim Griffin.


STUBBLEFIELD: The amended House bill is the only way to really protect minors. For another reason, it was the only draft that will stand up in court. None of us like to pass a bill that's going to get struck down by a judge and not help any children at all.

LENORA: In a statement, the attorney general of Arkansas says he routinely works closely with legislators to make sure bills are consistent with the U.S. and Arkansas constitutions. He says the final version of this law does protect children.

For NPR News, I'm Josie Lenora in Little Rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Josie Lenora