Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear defended a photograph of him posing with drag queens at a gay rights rally and accused a Republican lawmaker of using homophobic tactics by displaying the photo at a recent campaign rally while accusing Democrats of corrupting traditional values.
Beshear, a Democrat, told reporters Thursday that he would pose for the photo again, saying he was practicing his faith to treat everyone with respect.
The Republican lawmaker who denounced the photo at the rally owes an apology to everyone appearing in the picture, the governor said. At the weekend rally for a Republican legislative candidate, state Sen. Phillip Wheeler accused Beshear and the Democratic Party of corrupting the values of children, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.
“They were absolutely homophobic," the governor said of the lawmaker's remarks. “I don't think he is the fashion police for the Capitol. I believe he owes each and every one of them an apology. They are as much Kentuckians as anybody else."
Wheeler defended his comments Thursday, saying they were not directed toward homosexuals.
“My problem is not with the gay movement," he said in a phone interview. “I didn't say anything about the ‘Pride Celebration.'"
Wheeler said he objected to what the drag queens wore. One of them donned a KFC bucket crafted to look like a nun’s habit while another posing behind Beshear was wearing horns.
“What I thought indecent was the fact that they wore outfits that mocked the Christian religion and mocked traditional values," Wheeler said. “That's what I've got a problem with, is the mockery and the fact that the governor would pose and support that."
The Republican candidate won this week's special election for an eastern Kentucky House seat that had been held by a Democrat for decades. The Appalachian region is a stronghold for Republican President Donald Trump. Beshear said Thursday he didn't think the photo influenced the outcome.
At the campaign event, Wheeler said: “This is not only a fight for the soul of America," the Lexington newspaper reported. “It is a fight against evil, for just the forces of decency.”
Beshear recently became Kentucky’s first sitting governor to attend the gay rights rally in the state Capitol Rotunda, a few steps from the governor’s office. The rallies by gay-rights supporters date back to the 1990s, activists said.
The governor spoke against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and supported a ban on conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth during the rally.
Beshear said Thursday that he was proud to make history with his appearance.
“It's time to move beyond the hatred and the division and treat everyone the way that they're supposed to be treated," he said. “For me, it's a matter of faith, morals and doing what's right."
“I would absolutely take that picture again because those are Kentuckians that were here at their Capitol," the governor added.
Beshear defeated Republican incumbent Matt Bevin, a staunch social conservative, to win the governorship in last year's election.
Political opposition to gay rights has some deep roots in Kentucky.
In 2004, Kentucky voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman. But in June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees same-sex couples have the right to marry. The ruling overturned same-sex marriage bans nationwide.
A county clerk in Kentucky, Kim Davis, made international news when she was jailed in 2015 for refusing to issue marriage licenses after gay weddings became legal. She cited her religious beliefs and said she was acting under “God’s authority.”
Davis was released only after her staff issued the licenses on her behalf but removed her name from the form. The state legislature later passed a law removing the names of all county clerks from state marriage licenses.
Gay-rights activists have made headway. A growing number of Kentucky municipalities have passed local “fairness ordinances,” which ban LGBTQ discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.