Tennessee Governor Bill Lee looks fetching in drag. The photo from the Franklin High School 1977 yearbook with the caption “Hard Luck Woman” shows a smiling Lee wigged out in a short dress and sporting a necklace of fake pearls. The apparel is so on-point that it is hard to tell that the future governor is indeed a man. As Rod Stewart once sang, he wears it well.
Forty-six years later, when the Daily Beast asked about the photo, Gov. Lee dismissed his youthful prank as part of “lighthearted school traditions” [that] shouldn’t be ‘conflated’ with the issue the state is banning.”
The issue is a new law in the Volunteer State that bans gatherings of anyone that dares to dress as the governor once did. Senate Bill 3 “creates an offense for a person who engages in an adult cabaret performance on public property or in a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.”
Co-sponsor of the bill, Republican State Rep. Jack Johnson said, “We’re protecting kids and families and parents who want to be able to take their kids to public places. We’re not attacking anyone or targeting anyone.”
So, no more gatherings of drag show performers. However, if you are a Klansman parading with your bros in white sheets and perhaps chanting “Jews will not replace us!” you are more than legally welcome to do so in Tennessee. As repugnant as that gathering is the First Amendment guarantees us that freedom and thank goodness we still have that right in the United States. Many countries do not.
Let’s review the amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Dismal Statistics Affecting Tennessee’s Children
OK, “protecting kids.” Now is a good time to do a deep dive into how Tennessee’s youngest citizens actually fare. According to The Sycamore Institute, some 18.8 percent of the state’s school-age children live in poverty, or 20 percent higher than the also appalling 15.7 percent nationwide. This saddles Tennessee with the country’s 12th highest poverty rate.
How about education? Tennessee spends $4,000 less per student than the rest of the country. That places the state 44th nationally. The Education Law Center graded Tennessee a F for funding level; a F for funding effort; and a D for funding distribution.
How about the situation with kids and drugs? The CDC found that overdose deaths among Tennessee’s children ages 10 to 19 increased 109 percent from 2019 to 2021, while adolescent deaths involving illicit fentanyl increased 182 percent. The CDC also reported that nonfatal overdoses among children 17 years old and under increased about 163 percent from 2020 to 2022.
These statistics were compiled before the recent crackdown on drag shows. Can we blame cabarets and movies such as Mrs. Doubtfire on the state’s rather rank ranking? Is there a cause and effect?
Or, are we now assured that with the ban in place that the state’s poverty rates will fall, that education funding will increase, and that overdoses will decrease?
Call me naive, but it seems that those dismal statistics affecting Tennessee’s children and, thus “grooming” them for a lousy future, are more pressing than alleged exposure to a dude like Gov. Lee in full female couture. (Remember, the leading cause of death in American children 1 to 19 years of age remains firearms-related injuries. Will the governor suggest tightening up his state’s gun laws?)
The same week he signed the drag ban bill into law, Gov. Lee, whose apparent grasp of the First Amendment is hamstrung by his allegiance to the radical right’s joke mob, decided to pile on with another law to punish the most vulnerable Tennesseans: trans children.
Senate Bill 1 “prohibits a healthcare provider from performing on a minor or administering to a minor a medical procedure if the performance or administration of the procedure is for the purpose of enabling a minor to identify with, or live as, a purported identity inconsistent with the minor’s sex.”
More of these drag and trans bills are moving through many red-state legislatures along with book bans, punitive anti-abortion measures (apparently overturning Roe v. Wade did not go far enough) and the tired cultural war issues that Republicans have fought for decades. (Note that the conservative mob love to attack the least able to fight back: people of color, LGBTQ+ folks and the poor. Always the poor.)
Tennessee’s attempt to squelch freedom of assembly and speech for groups some legislators abhor will not stand the legal challenges it most certainly will face from the ACLU and others.
Meanwhile, the increased hate and fear that these bills have spawned will only create more violent assaults on patriotic American citizens that still believe in the freedoms granted to them by the US Constitution. For autocratic governors to chip away at those freedoms to the benefit of a radical right agenda will cause more harm to a child’s future than a night of cabaret. Well, with the exception of guns, of course.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.