By the time Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee confirmed Monday that he would sign a recently passed bill criminalizing 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 started to circulate on Reddit and Twitter.
Just before midnight Saturday, a Reddit user shared an image that appears to show Lee as a high school student wearing a short-skirted cheerleader’s uniform, a pearl necklace and a wig, posing on a school sports field next to two girls in men’s suits. The caption says, “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 drag bill on the governor’s desk, saying, “I’m sure it will be signed but, the hypocrisy needs to be poked at before they come after Play in Nashville or even Rocky Horror at Belcourt twice a year,” references to a popular Nashville dance club and the gender-bending musical “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Answering reporters’ questions Monday, Lee, a Republican, said he would sign the drag bill in addition to a separate piece of legislation that would prohibit gender-affirming care for the state’s minors. He was then asked whether he remembers “dressing in drag in 1977” and appeared to have been shown a copy of the image. He neither confirmed nor denied whether it was him in the image.
“What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is,” Lee responded in an exchange that was recorded and shared on Twitter by The Tennessee Holler, a local news site. “Conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious subject.”
Lee’s press secretary, Jade Cooper Byers, did not confirm whether it is Lee in the yearbook photo. Byers said 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. Byers did not respond to a follow-up question asking for clarification.
While the event photographed in the yearbook would meet most definitions of “drag,” it would not necessarily be illegal under Tennessee’s newly passed drag bill, which specifically bans “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” from performing in public or in front of children.
A spokesperson 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 spokesperson, Cory Mason, cautioned that there is no caption to accompany the photograph “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 a U.S. high school yearbook database on Ancestry.com.
The image emerged less than a week after Tennessee legislators passed a bill to restrict “adult cabaret performances” in public or in front of children. It defines “adult cabaret” performers as “topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration.”
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 broadly paints all drag as obscene and sexualized.
After Lee’s remarks Monday, some drag performers criticized his aversion to comparing the yearbook image to a drag performance, calling his response “hypocritical.”
“He’s saying: ‘It’s OK for straight people to do it, but not the gay community,’” said Denise Sadler, 38, who has been performing drag in Nashville for more than two decades. “That’s the message he’s delivering to the people.”
While Tennessee is expected to become the first state to pass such a restriction on drag performances, it may soon have company. Republican legislators in at least a dozen other states have introduced similar measures this year, according to an NBC News analysis.
The image appearing to show Lee in drag is not the first of his yearbook photos to have made national news. In 2019, he apologized after an image of him dressed in a Confederate uniform in the 1980 Auburn University yearbook emerged.