“What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is,” the governor responded.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, on Monday, addressed a photo making rounds on social media that appears to show him dressed in drag back in high school. The photo surfaced as he plans to sign a bill that would add more restrictions to public drag shows across the state.
The Tennessee Holler, a progressive media organization based in Tennessee, said it showed the governor the photo during his media availability on Monday and asked if he remembered dressing in drag in 1977.
“What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is,” the governor responded. “Conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children… which is a very serious subject.”
The governor did not address the photo further as the Holler’s reporter responded, “Drag is not sexualized. Do you remember it? Is this you?”
NBC News said it asked Lee’s press secretary, Jade Cooper Byers, about the photo. She did not confirm whether it is Lee in the yearbook photo. Byers told NBC News in an email that “any attempt to conflate this serious issue with lighthearted school traditions is dishonest and disrespectful to Tennessee families.”
“The school tradition Byers referred to is most likely a powderpuff football game, in which boys dress as girls and vice versa during homecoming week,” NBC News reported. “Byers did not respond to a follow-up question asking for clarification.”
Laws around adult cabarets in Tennessee are not new. The bill placing new restrictions on drag shows, Senate Bill 3, is amending a state law that already classified male and female impersonators as adult cabaret performers. Current law points to location limits for adult-oriented establishments and cabarets, saying they shall not locate within 1,000 feet of a school, park, or place of worship.
However, the amendment Republican lawmakers are voting in favor of would add more restrictions to adult cabaret performers, preventing them from performing in any location where children might be able to see them.
State lawmakers in support of the bill said the goal of the bill is to protect children, saying it would not necessarily ban all forms of drag.
“It just simply says that you can’t do or have sexually explicit adult-themed entertainment in two specific places…. one is on public property and the other is in a private venue where kids are present,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), said. “If someone wants to have a drag show that is totally fine, my legislation doesn’t do anything to change that. It’s just while you’re having your drag show, you can’t simulate sex acts.”
Drag performers, like Demitrya Kryst, think the new legislation specifically targets the drag community.
“If you don’t want to watch a drag show, you don’t have to,” said Kryst, who has been a drag queen for decades. “If you don’t want your kids to watch a drag show, you don’t have to let them, that’s okay.”
Opponents of the bill also worry about the scope of how the new law will be enforced, saying the definition of “male and female impersonator” is vague and leaves too much open for personal bias. Some said they wonder where the line will be drawn on what’s considered sexualized or appealing to the “prurient interest,” as the bill states.
A local example of a drag show proposed at a park is the ‘Drag Me to Nature’ event that was scheduled at Ijams in November 2022. The event organizer, Joshua Ricker, said the event was all about teaching people about nature through performance art. He said performers planned to dress like forest fairies and other mystical creatures from nature.
“Our mission was to bring magical creatures to Ijams through performance art and ensure it was a safe and fun event for everyone of all ages to enjoy,” Ricker said. “There was a strict dress code policy set in place before people were even cast.”
However, before the event could take place, people online protested to get it canceled. Ricker said folks claimed the event was not ‘appropriate’ for children to attend. Ijams canceled. They provided a statement to 10News about the event’s cancellation.
“This event was organized with members of the LGBTQIA community to be a family event that involved people dressed in nature themes (birds, butterflies, etc.) and/or magical creature themes (elves, fairies, etc.) with song and dance as part of our Back Patio Social Series. It was never going to be a traditional drag show with burlesque elements. It was to be a celebration of nature in costume and song. Due to this confusion, we canceled the event,” said a spokesperson for Ijams.
Although the event was canceled weeks before it came to fruition, (R) Sen. Johnson said events like the one at Ijams Nature Center could still take place under this proposed legislation. He said events like Drag Story Time would be legal as well.