By the time Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday that he will sign a recently passed bill that would criminalize drag performances in public and in front of children, a photo that appears to show him dressed in drag as a high school student had already begun to spread on. Reddit and Twitter.
Just before midnight on Saturday, a Reddit user shared an image showing Lee as a high school student wearing a short-skirted cheerleader uniform, a pearl necklace and a wig, standing in confusion on a school sports field next to two girls in men’s suits. . The caption reads, “Governor Bill Lee in drag (1977 high school yearbook).
In a subsequent post, the Reddit user, who did not respond to a request for comment, referred to the bill being drawn up on the governor’s desk, saying, “I’m sure it will be signed but, the hypocrisy must be struck first. they come after Play in Nashville or even Rocky Horror at Belcourt twice a year,” references to the popular Nashville dance club and the gender-bending musical “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Responding to questions from reporters Monday, Lee, a Republican, said he would sign the bill along with a separate piece of legislation that would ban gender-affirming care for minors in the state. He was then asked if he remembered “a dress in 1977” and appeared to have been shown a copy of the image. He neither confirmed nor denied whether he was in the image.
“That’s a ridiculous, ridiculous question,” Lee responded in an exchange he recorded and shared on Twitter by The Tennessee Holler, a local news site. “To conflate something like that with sexual entertainment in front of children, which is very serious.”
Lee’s press secretary, Jade Cooper Byers, did not confirm whether Lee is in the yearbook photo. Byers said in an email that “any attempt to conflate this serious issue with light school traditions is dishonest and disrespectful to Tennessee families.”
The school tradition Byers is referring to is probably a powder football game, where boys dress up as girls and vice versa during homecoming week. Byers did not respond to a follow-up question seeking clarification.
While the event chronicled in the yearbook would meet most definitions of “haul,” it would not necessarily be illegal under Tennessee’s newly passed tow bill, which specifically prohibits “persons or a feminine entertainer who enjoys a sane interest” from showing i. in public or in front of children.
A spokesman for Lee’s former high school, Franklin High School in Franklin, confirmed in an email that the image is from the school’s 1977 yearbook and appears to be Bill Lee. However, the spokesman, Cory Mason, warned that there is no title to go with the photo “or any other form of identification.”
Much of the school’s 1977 yearbook, including the image showing Lee in drag, can also be found in the US high school yearbook database on Ancestry.com.
The image emerged less than a week after Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill to restrict “adult cabaret performances” in public or in front of children. It defines “adult cabaret” performers as “unsophisticated dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female personages who provide entertainment that appeals to a sane interest, or similar entertainers, whether performing or was … not.”
Supporters of the adult cabaret bill, including Lee, say legislation is needed to protect children from exposure to inappropriate entertainment. Critics say it unfairly targets an art form that has long been associated with LGBTQ people and culture and generally portrays everything as obscene and sexual.
Following Lee’s comments on Monday, some drag performers criticized his refusal to compare the yearbook image to a drag performance, saying his response was “hypocritical”.
“It’s saying: ‘It’s OK for straight people to do it, but not for the gay community,'” said Denise Sadler, 38, who has performed drag in Nashville for more than two decades. “That’s the message he’s giving to the people.”
While Tennessee is expected to be the first state to pass such a ban on drag shows, it may soon have company. Republican lawmakers in at least a dozen other states have introduced similar measures this year, according to an NBC News analysis.
The image Lee shows in drag is not the first photo of his yearbook that has made national news. In 2019, he apologized after an image of him dressed in Confederate uniform in a 1980 Auburn University yearbook surfaced.