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GOP Gov. Bill Lee to sign anti-drag bill despite wearing drag as a teen

Gov. Bill Lee (R) of Tennessee
Gov. Bill Lee (R) of Tennessee Photo: Tennessee Governor's Office

As Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) prepares to sign a bill that will make drag performances illegal in the state, a photo has surfaced of Lee himself in drag as a teen.

As The Daily Beast reports, the black and white photo from a 1977 Franklin High Yearbook appears to show Lee wearing a dress, wig, and pearls and is captioned “Hard Luck Woman.” The photo was posted on Reddit over the weekend.

Tennessee’s House Bill 9 includes language banning “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” from appearing “on public property” or “in a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.” The bill would make appearing in drag on public property a misdemeanor first-time offense and a felony second offense. H.B. 9 was passed last week by the Tennessee House. It now returns to the state Senate for a procedural vote before being sent to Lee to sign into law.

During a press conference on Monday, Lee was asked if he remembered “dressing in drag in 1977.” While Lee did not deny the photo was of him, he rejected the comparison to the types of performances banned in H.B. 9.

“What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is,” Lee said. “Conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious subject.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Lee’s office also rejected the comparison: “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.”

But the photo and Lee’s response illustrate the carelessness with which H.B. 9 and other similarly vaguely worded anti-drag bills have been conceived. Neither Lee nor his office explained why his appearing in “women’s clothing” at a high school would be considered any different from what the Tennessee bill characterizes as “adult cabaret performance.”

“These laws are written so broadly and vaguely that they would allow government officials to censor performers based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate on any given day,” the ACLU Tennessee wrote of similar legislation earlier this month.

As activist Erin Reed noted earlier last week, under H.B. 9, which makes no distinction between drag performers and trans people, “Transgender people and drag artists dancing in a pride parade could be considered criminal.”

“This bill brings us back to pre-Stonewall era in Tennessee in many ways,” Reed tweeted. Prior to the 1969 uprising that sparked the modern American LGBTQ+ rights movement, authorities routinely used 19th-century “masquerade laws” banning costumes to arrest LGBTQ+ people for publicly appearing in clothing that didn’t correspond to their assigned gender.

Lee is hardly the first GOP politician to have his inconvenient history with drag revealed. After Republican Kari Lake criticized Democrats for “welcoming drag queens” into schools during her 2022 campaign for Arizona Governor, claims surfaced online that the former local news anchor attended drag events with her daughter alongside photos of Lake posing with drag performers. More recently, New York congressman George Santos (R) was forced to acknowledge his history of appearing in drag.

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