UPDATE (3/2/23): The Tennessee Senate has officially passed a bill restricting drag shows, which means the bill is heading to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk, where he said he’ll sign it into law.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A bill that would restrict drag performances in Tennessee is one procedural move away from the governor’s desk and becoming the law.
But just as the bill is about to cross the finish line, a yearbook picture taken nearly 50 years ago appearing to show Gov. Bill Lee in a dress has turned into a headache.
“Sexualized entertainment in front of children and obscenity for children is something that shouldn’t happen in this state,” Lee told reporters as protestors called him a fascist and a liar at an event in Memphis on Wednesday.
Reporters also asked Lee again about the photo circulating online from his 1977 Franklin High yearbook.
“It’s ridiculous to try and conflate some high school skit to something that is as serious as potentially really harming children,” Lee said.
However, the photo doesn’t seem to be going away.
Almost $40,000 has been raised for a GoFundMe to put up billboards of the photo around Tennessee next to foster care statistics in the state.
In the comments on the donation page, people are saying they are from states around the country and calling Lee a hypocrite.
If signed, the bill would in part ban “adult cabaret performances,” “male or female impersonators,” “topless dancers” and/or “similar entertainers” from providing entertainment that appeals to a “prurient interest.”
The bill’s sponsors say the definition of what would qualify as a “prurient interest” is stated in Tennessee Code.
“I think the language is pretty clear at what we are trying to get at and it is blatantly sexually explicit entertainment, simulating sex acts,” bill sponsor and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson said. “That any reasonable person can look at and deem that is inappropriate.”
Johnson has also repeatedly said this law is not meant to target the LGBTQ community but rather to protect children.
Yet, opponents and critics of the bill fear that this bill would be broader than stopping performances with simulated sex acts and argue that drag is an art form and not the same as exotic dancing.
“This bill would allow me as a district attorney, by the plain language of this bill, to arrest Beyonce,” said Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville).
When asked if there have been cases of public, adult cabaret that have been harmful to kids in Tennessee, the other sponsor of the bill explained why he felt motivated to bring forward the legislation.
“This past year in my community we had a local group decide to do a quote family-friendly drag show and when they listed this as family-friendly, my community rose up,” Rep. Chris Todd (R-Madison County) explained.
Todd said his constituents raised thousands of dollars were raised to put up a legal fight in his county to stop the show from happening, and that afterward, his constituents asked him to take the issue to the General Assembly.
Tennessee is not the only state to bring forward a bill restricting drag performances. States like Arizona, Texas and Tennessee all have legislation related to drag moving through their statehouses.
When asked if they plan to challenge the law in court, the ACLU of Tennessee said they had concerns about the bill.
“We have serious constitutional concerns about the drag ban that could result in litigation. We would like to continue to hear from event organizers, performers and businesses or others that are going to host drag events and are prevented from doing so once the new law is passed,” wrote the group in a statement.
If it is signed by the governor, the first offense for performers who break the law would be a Class A misdemeanor and a second offense would be a Class E felony.
The bill’s sponsor said ultimately the decision as to whether a performance is sexual in nature will be left to judges, juries and local law enforcement.