By the time Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee confirmed Monday that he would sign the recently passed bill criminalizing drag performances in public and in front of children, a photo that appeared to show him dressed in drag as a high school student had already started circulating on Reddit and Twitter.
Shortly before midnight on Saturday, a Reddit user shared an image that appeared to show Lee as a high school student wearing a cheerleader uniform with a short skirt, pearl necklace and wig, posing on a school sports field next to two girls in male costumes. Caption reads: “Governor Bill Lee in Drag (1977 High School Yearbook).”
In a follow-up post, the Reddit user, who did not respond to a request for comment, referred to the bill moving to the governor’s desk, saying, “I’m sure it will be signed, but the hypocrisy needs to be addressed before they come after Play in Nashville or even Rocky Horror at the Belcourt twice a year,” references to a popular Nashville dance club and the musical “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Answering questions from reporters Monday, Lee, a Republican, said he would sign the relocation bill in addition to separate legislation that would ban gender-affirming care for minors in the state. He was then asked if he remembered “dressing up in drag in 1977” and appeared to be shown a copy of the image. He neither confirmed nor denied if it was him in the photo.
“What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is,” Lee responded in a conversation recorded and shared on Twitter by The Tennessee Holler, a local news site. “Combining something like this with sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious subject.”
Lee’s press secretary, Jade Cooper Byers, would not confirm if that was Lee in the yearbook photo. Byers said in an email that “any attempt to link this serious issue to uncaring school traditions is dishonest and disrespectful to Tennessee families.”
The school tradition Byers is referring to is most likely a powder puff 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.
Although the event photographed in the yearbook would meet most definitions of “drag,” it is not necessarily illegal under Tennessee’s recently enacted drag law, which specifically prohibits “impersonators of men or women who provide entertainment that attracts favorable interests ‘ to perform 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 was from the school’s 1977 yearbook and “appears to be Bill Lee.” However, spokesman Corey Mason cautioned that there was no caption to accompany the photo “or any other form of identification.”
Much of the school’s 1977 yearbook, including the image that appears to show Lee in drag, can also be found in Ancestry.com’s US high school yearbook database.
The image emerged less than a week after Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill to restrict “adult cabaret shows” in public or in front of children. It defines “adult cabaret performers” as “top dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment appealing to discerning interests, or similar entertainers, whether performed for remuneration or 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 long associated with LGBTQ people and culture, and generally paints any movement as indecent and sexualized.
Following Lee’s remarks on Monday, some drag performers criticized his distaste for comparing the yearbook image to a drag performance, calling his response “hypocritical.”
“He’s saying, ‘It’s okay 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 sending to people.”
While Tennessee is expected to become the first state to pass such a drag ban, 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 showing Lee in drag is not the first of his yearbook photos to make national news. In 2019, he apologized after an image of him wearing a Confederate uniform appeared in the 1980 Auburn University yearbook.