Governor's photo with drag queens stirs controversy in Kentucky

Tim Fitzsimons

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, made history last week when he became the first governor in the state to appear at a rally for the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign, upholding a campaign promise to support LGBTQ rights.

Each year since 1999, when Kentucky’s first-ever nondiscrimination ordinances were passed into law by the city councils of Louisville and Lexington, the Fairness Campaign has lobbied lawmakers to make such discrimination illegal statewide.

While Beshear’s presence at the rally made headlines, it was a photo of him with local chapters of the activist drag troupe the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence that launched a separate scandal that has ensnared a conservative Kentucky lawmaker with a history of making controversial remarks.

Speaking at a political event this week, Republican Sen. Phillip Wheeler pulled out his cell phone and showed his constituents the image of the governor with the drag queens.

“This is what our Democrat governor is about today,” Wheeler said, forebodingly. “These are the values that the Democratic party of today is out there trying to convince our children’s the right way to live.”

“I would have never thought that there’d be a day where we’d have people dressed in devil horns celebrating with our governor in our beautiful capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky,” Wheeler continued, saying governor Beshear “celebrates it being defiled.”

But Beshear had no apologies, and instead defended both the drag queens and his appearance in the photo.

"Everyone in Kentucky counts," Beshear said, according to local NBC affiliate WLWT. "I would absolutely take that picture again."

Beshear called Wheeler's comments "absolutely homophobic" and said he owes "an apology to every single person in that picture," adding, "I think he should do it personally."

Local Democrats are now calling for Wheeler to resign.

“It’s time for Phillip Wheeler to go,” said Marisa McNee, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Democratic Party, calling his remarks “gross and dangerous.”

“If Senator Wheeler does not resign, the Senate must censure him immediately,” McNee added, noting Wheeler had recently been caught in a scandal for using a slur to describe Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

For his part, Wheeler said he would not resign and objected to what he described as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence mocking “traditional religion.”

"I think it's being presented as an LGBTQ issue, and in my opinion, it's not an LGBTQ issue," Wheeler told NBC's Lexington affiliate. "It's a question of decorum, and this particular group — the post with the governor — I mean, part of their agenda is to mock people of religion by using specific religious garb. Like, I think the one used a habit made out of a KFC bucket. One used devil horns."

For the activist drag troupe, controversy like this is nothing new — it’s part of their DNA. And Shane Ranschaert, one of the drag activists in the Beshear photo, said the stir sparked by the image has been good for the group's political goal of passing a statewide nondiscrimination law.

“We are continuously amazed at our governor, first at him coming out in support, and second coming out and defending taking that photo and going as far to say he would do it again," he said.

Ranschaert added that the recent support they've gotten from state Democrats is “something we are still trying to fathom, because it’s not something we are accustomed to.”

“That same senator that made those comments has had to backtrack on those comments and say that he supports LGBT people and supports not discriminating against them," Ranschaert said. "The [Republican] speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives says he supports fairness."

"Because of that senator’s homophobic remarks, he added. "it’s making our senators and representatives take a position on this.”

More than 40 years after the now-national Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was founded in San Francisco, Ranschaert said it's nice to see their tactics are "still working."

“We are still using the same campy attitude and the same campy ways to stir up controversy and to get people thinking" he said.

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