Tennessee Gov. Lee deflects question about high school photo of himself in drag attire

Bill limiting performances is nearing his desk for approval

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

HENDERSONVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said a high-school yearbook photo of himself as a teen wearing a cheerleader’s uniform, jewelry and wig is not at odds with the state’s upcoming restrictions on drag performances.

Legislation supported by Lee would make it a criminal offense to hold performances of drag shows in public places or in private places with minors in attendance.

The photo was posted over the weekend on Reddit, and progressive activist Justin Kanew — who runs the left-leaning Tennessee Holler website — asked Lee about the photo after Lee toured a Hendersonville elementary school.

“Do you remember dressing in drag in 1977, Governor? Remember this?” Kanew asked, showing a printout, apparently from the Franklin High School yearbook in Williamson County.

As Kanew sought to reconcile Lee’s past dressing-up with the still-pending bill on drag performances, Lee said, “What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is. Conflating something like that to a sexualized entertainment in front of children is a very serious subject.”

Lee, who didn’t deny the photo was of himself, went on to respond to a reporter’s question as to why he plans to sign the bill into law.

“I think that the concern is what’s right there in that building (children), that are potentially exposed to sexualized entertainment, to obscenity. We need to make sure they’re not,” the governor said, pointing to the William Burrus Elementary School where he had just wrapped up a tour.

He said he supports the bill’s restrictions on drag performances.

“I think that’s something that should happen in Tennessee,” he said.

The legislation establishes a misdemeanor, punishable by jail time of up to 11 months, 29 days and/or fines of up to $2,500 upon conviction, for performing adult cabaret entertainment on public property or in a location where the adult cabaret entertainment could be viewed by a person who is not an adult. Second or subsequent offenses carry between one to six years in prison as well as a fine of up to $3,000.

Both the Republican-led House and Senate have passed the legislation, but a change in some of the House bill’s language has sent it back to the upper chamber for concurrence.

Lee Press Secretary Jade Byers later released a statement.

“The bill specifically protects children from obscene, sexualized entertainment, and any attempt to conflate this serious issue with lighthearted school traditions is dishonest and disrespectful to Tennessee families,” the statement said.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, later texted the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

“This bill is not about protecting children,” she said. “It’s already illegal in TN to be obscene in front of children, no matter what you are wearing. This is hate for hate’s sake and completely unnecessary.

“It’s not surprising he thinks he can have fun dressing up, but those he disagrees with should be arrested,” she added.

Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, stopped for a brief interview outside the Senate chamber and said it’s unfortunate that the LGBTQ community is being attacked.

“Maybe it serves as a reminder that we should all give each other some grace and stop attacking one another,” she said.

The bill bars “adult” oriented entertainment on public property. It also prohibits adult cabaret performances featuring exotic dancers, strippers and “male or female impersonators” in private venues with children present.

In Tennessee and other parts of the country, drag has been attacked by right-wing activists and politicians who complain about the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. Drag does not typically involve nudity or stripping, which are more common in burlesque, a different form of entertainment.

In Chattanooga, about 30 people protested an all-ages drag queen brunch at a local theater in November.

Some in Chattanooga question whether the legislation, should it become law, will impact Broadway productions coming to the city. The recent “My Fair Lady” show and the upcoming “Chicago” show both feature men in drag.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.

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