Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who is expected to sign into law a ban on drag in public, is facing accusations of hypocrisy this week after a high school yearbook photo that appears to show him dressed in drag circulated on Reddit and Twitter.
Late Saturday night, a Reddit user posted a photo from Franklin High School’s 1977 yearbook of a student who appears to be Lee wearing a pearl necklace, a curly wig, and a short-skirted cheerleader’s outfit. The caption underneath the photo reads “hard luck woman,” as the student who appears to be Lee stands on a grassy sporting field between two girls dressed in suits and ties. BuzzFeed News reviewed images in the Franklin High School yearbook — which can be found on publicly accessible databases online — which appear to show Lee and other male students dressed as cheerleaders while female students play a game of touch football for the school’s “powderpuff” game.
The Republican governor and his office haven’t confirmed or denied whether it was Lee in the photo. The Tennessee Holler, a progressive local publication, asked Lee in a video interview whether or not he remembered “dressing in drag in 1977.”
“What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is,” Lee said in the video. “Conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious subject.”
Lee’s press secretary, Jade Cooper Byers, told NBC News in an email to say that “any attempt to conflate this serious issue with lighthearted school traditions is dishonest and disrespectful to Tennessee families.”
The “serious issue” Byers is talking about is the state’s bill, HB 9, which would ban “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” from performing in public spaces or in front of minors.
Lee has a little over a week to sign the bill and has said he plans to. But even if he vetoes it, the Republican-controlled legislature can, and likely would, override his actions to enact the bill into law as soon as April 1. Those who violate the law would first be charged with a misdemeanor, and subsequent violations could land individuals with up to six years in prison for felony charges.
While Lee’s teenage cheerleader drag would not necessarily be defined as “prurient” or be criminalized under the drag ban, advocates say that language of the bill is intentionally fuzzy.
“Some people and legislators in our state, some of them think that any drag or anyone dressed up in what they feel is not an appropriate gender role is obscene and is harmful to minors,” Kathy Sinback, the executive director of the ACLU in Tennessee, told BuzzFeed News last week. “Even just your run-of-the-mill, joyful drag, even just glamorous drag performance.”
The original photo was shared on Reddit less than a week after Tennessee’s legislature passed two bills targeting the trans community. In addition to the ban on drag, lawmakers approved a bill to restrict gender-affirming healthcare for minors, which would make Tennessee the fourth state to enact such a ban this year, after Utah, South Dakota, and, as of Tuesday morning, Mississippi.
This is not the first time images of Lee’s past have resurfaced and made national headlines. Four years ago, a photo of the governor dressed in a Confederate uniform from his 1980 Auburn University yearbook circulated.
Lee apologized for his participation in an “Old South”–themed party. “While I never intentionally acted in an insensitive way, with 40 years of hindsight, I have come to realize that was insensitive and have come to regret that,” he told NBC News at the time.