Seven Walton Arts Center board members announced their resignations Friday. This comes a week after NWA Equality announced drag performances are no longer allowed at Walton Arts Center facilities, where minors are permitted, during NWA Pride Weekend. Following the resignations, community members held a peaceful protest Saturday at the Walton Arts Center, sponsored by Arkansans for Social Justice.
NWA Equality has used WAC venues for Pride celebrations for nearly two decades. The organization has used the specific facility for the NWA Youth Zone since 2018.
“In several conversations beginning March 30, the Walton Arts Center's CEO informed Northwest Arkansas Equality that drag performances where minors are permitted are no longer allowed in their facilities during Northwest Arkansas Pride Weekend,” Director of NWA Pride Richard Gathright said in a press release. “The Walton Arts Center's governing boards of directors upheld the decision on May 2 during a meeting with NWA Equality's representatives.”
The board members who sent in their resignations include Casey Hamaker, Anne O’Leary-Kelly, Jody Dilday, Cal Rose, Lia Uribe, Mervin Jebaraj and Shabana Kauser. Five of the members were part of the board’s Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) committee.
“Resignation demonstrates integrity, and we sincerely hope that Peter Lane and the rest of the executive leadership that made this decision will follow suit,” Caitlin Draper, co-founder of Arkansans for Social Justice, said.
O’Leary-Kelly said in an email that her conscience is what compelled her to resign from the Walton Arts Center Council Board.
Draper said she decided to organize a protest after hearing WAC’s CEO Peter Lane and the executive leadership team’s decision.
“We believe that Peter's decision is homophobic, bigoted and perpetuates a dangerous stigma that members of the LGBTQIA+ population and performers who use drag as their artistic medium are somehow dangerous,” Draper said in an email. “This dangerous perception comes from the hypersexualization of the LGBTQIA+ population.”
Arkansans for Social Justice support the board members who resigned, Draper said in the email. The group is aware that board members, including those who served on the DEIB committee, were not consulted prior to the decision.
The protest had a turnout of 250-300 people, Draper said. There were representatives from local groups and politicians including Arkansans for the People, Intransitive, Justice of the Peace Beth Coger and City Councilwoman Sarah Moore.
“There were folk artists with chalk, chanting and even friendship bracelets,” Draper said. “Now we hope to start a conversation with the Walton Arts Center's executive leadership team in hopes of a reversal of their original decision.”
NWA Equality has since announced the relocation of the Pride Youth Zone for the festival.
Because of the WAC's censorship of Queer performance art, NWA Equality is pausing its partnership with the WAC and the use of its locally tax-supported facilities, according to the statement made by the WAC. The NWA Pride Youth Zone will now be located at the Fayetteville Town Center.
The WAC has since released a statement regarding NWA Equality officials’ decision to relocate Pride events.
A main concern the WAC had with the NWA Pride event was the policy that stated parents and guardians will not be allowed inside the Youth Zone.
WAC officials are also concerned that if they were to hold the events, it could be used in a political context to further attack the LGBTQ+ community and undermine the overall operation of the WAC, according to the statement.
The WAC encourages community members to voice their concerns and protest to help cool the heated rhetoric of the political climate.
WAC officials stated they have not ended their support for the Pride Festival, NWA Equality and the LGBTQ+ community.
“This is an excellent opportunity for new leadership at the Walton Arts Center — a leadership team that is more in touch with the needs of our dynamic community,” Draper said.
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