Voices: How the Tennessee lieutenant governor liking a gay man’s racy photos reveals hypocrisy of the state’s drag ban

Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally  (Tennessee General Assembly )
Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally (Tennessee General Assembly )

Randy McNally has been caught being, as the kids might say, “randy on main.” As reported yesterday by progressive website the Tennessee Holler, the married Republican Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee left various approving comments on racy pictures posted by a 20-year-old gender non-conforming gay man. These comments include leaving a heart emoji under a photo of the young man wearing makeup and pulling down his pink underwear and using flame emojis in a comment on a suggestive photo of the young man’s rear end and commenting “you can turn a rainy day into rainbows and sunshine.”

In a statement to the Memphis-based WMCA-TV reporter Walter Murphy, McNally’s communications director did not deny that the comments were left by the lieutenant governor himself. “Trying to imply something sinister or inappropriate about a great-grandfather’s use of social media says more about the mind of the left-wing operative making the implication than it does about Randy McNally,” the statement reads.

Y’all are free to draw your own conclusions about whether McNally, 79, commenting on the photos of a 20-year-old male model in risqué poses crosses any sort of line. As a voter, I think about the great power imbalance between someone so young and someone so old, especially someone in a position of authority like McNally. I also do not believe it is becoming of the Lieutenant Governor of our state to use his official Instagram account to comment on risqué photos.

Reasonable people may disagree with either of those points. Where I see less room for disagreement is in the blatant hypocrisy of Randy McNally. He leads a party – the Lieutenant Governor is also the Speaker of the Tennessee Senate – which just passed a ban on public drag shows, calling them “prurient.” Yet here he is, responding positively to a public display of gender non-conformity that is far more sexual than anything I have ever seen in a drag show.

That is not a criticism of the young man who is posting photos; that’s what young people do these days, and I’m not here to shame him for expressing himself on social media. It is however a criticism of the double standard I believe McNally is exhibiting here: to me, this shows he enjoys a public display of gender non-conformity that could lead to this young man’s felony arrest. He’s happy to view and consume queer bodies if and when they appeal to his gaze. Otherwise, it’s back in the closet with us.

That McNally approvingly commented on these photos while the party he leads publicly criminalizes such displays is a matter of fact even by his own communication director’s admission, even while they insist that there is nothing nefarious here. The young man himself says that he and McNally, while never having met in person, have been online friends for years.

In his statement, the Lieutenant Governor’s office blamed a “left-wing operative” for reading something sexual into his fire emojis on thirst-trap photos. Again, look at them yourself and make up your own mind.

Therein lies the problem with the very law the Lieutenant Governor hypocritically supports, though. The law bans “prurient” drag shows, but that term is so vague that we can’t even agree if the images the lieutenant governor liked were lewd enough to violate the law he helped pass. To me, it strikes as hypocrisy of the highest order.

Of course, right-wing men being hypocritical about the LGBT+ community is nothing new. In 2006, evangelical preacher Ted Haggard – who had spent years campaigning against equal marriage – resigned from his church after a male prostitute alleged Haggard paid him for sex. That same year, Republican Congressman Mark Foley – who had previously voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages – resigned after sending inappropriate texts to an underage male page.

More recently, Congressman Glenn Thompson, a Republican from Pennsylvania, voted against codifying marriage equality at the federal level before attending his son’s wedding to another man three days later. In 2020, former Republican Congressman Aaron Schock, who in office opposed LGBTQ rights, came out of the closet. Meanwhile, prominent rightwing operative Matt Schlapp currently stands accused of inappropriately touching a male colleague and inviting him up to his hotel room.

These past instances demonstrate a pattern of behavior that matters in the current political climate. Republicans are not above being gay or desiring LGBT+ bodies. They simply want to police and control those bodies – a fact being demonstrated across the nation; just yesterday Bloomberg reported that 2023 is already a record year for anti-LGBTQ laws, with a whopping 385 introduced in statehouses across the country.

Hypocrisy from people like McNally, then, becomes an interesting glimpse into the psyche of some Republican legislators pushing these laws. Some are no doubt true believers, dyed-in-the-wool homophobes and transphobes. Others, like McNally, appear willing to sacrifice LGBTQ people to advance their overall agenda and further entrench their own political power.

In turn, they hope to use that political power to erase the rights and power of minorities and political opponents. A second conviction under Tennessee’s drag ban is a felony, and felons can’t vote in Tennessee. Indeed, data collected by the Sentencing Project found that 9.3% of Tennessee’s voting population is already denied the franchise because of a felony conviction, and that our state “has the highest rate of disenfranchisement for both Black and Latinx Americans.” 50% of LGBTQ Americans are Democrats, compared to only 15% who are Republicans. The drag ban thus looks like it could be designed to accomplish with the LGBTQ community what Tennessee has already accomplished with people of color – to dilute our political power.

Pushing drag queens and gender non-conforming people back into the closet is thus best read as an act of political dominance. Randy McNally would strip us of our agency and ability to participate in the public sphere while simultaneously enjoying provocative images of gender non-conforming men. In doing so, he shows that the drag ban and laws like it were never really about public decency or morality to begin with. It was about dominance and oppression.

All the heart and fire emojis and encouraging comments won’t change that basic fact that the policies of the Tennessee Republicans aren’t just homophobic. They’re hypocritical.