LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – Organizers of northwest Arkansas’ Pride weekend said Wednesday they won’t hold events at an arts center that has prohibited the group from having drag shows or drag story hours in front of minors.
Northwest Arkansas Equality said it’s “pausing its partnership” with the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville after the facility’s governing board this month upheld the restrictions on drag shows for the weekend, which is held in June. The group said Walton Arts Center’s chief executive informed organizers of the decision over several conversations that began in March.
“This decision is surprising, disappointing, and inconsistent,” the group said in a statement. The group noted that the facility has shown programs that feature characters in drag, including “Tootsie” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
The move comes as Pride festivals and parades in mostly conservative states where there’s been a broader push targeting LGBTQ+ rights face increasing pressure to censor their events. A federal judge has blocked neighboring Tennessee’s strict limits on drag shows from taking effect.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in February signed a new law placing restrictions on “adult-oriented” performances that originally targeted drag shows but was scaled back following complaints that that it discriminated against the LGBTQ+ community. That law won’t take effect until late July.
Richard Gathright, director of Northwest Arkansas Pride, said Walton center officials didn’t cite the Arkansas law as a reason for prohibiting the shows. Walton Arts Center said it has recognized drag a performance as a medium and will continue to do so.
“We celebrate diversity both on and off our stages and are open to hosting Pride events this year except for drag story time for minors and drag performances by adults specifically for minors,” a statement released Wednesday from the center said. “Our decision was made in the interest of safety concerns for performers, patrons and staff due to the divisive political rhetoric at this time.”
Northwest Arkansas Equality said it has used the Walton Arts Center since 2018 as a venue for LGBTQ+ youth and their families, including resource fairs, drag story time and drag shows suitable for teens.
“They’re trying to censor clear art at an arts center,” Gathright said. “We couldn’t stand by and say half our stuff is OK there, but this particular performer can’t perform there because of this reason.”
The group said its Pride Youth Zone will instead be held at the Fayetteville Town Center on June 24. Gathright said the move also means the center’s plaza won’t be used for the parade emcee and announcers.
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