Keeping Our Eyes on Jay Lee

(photos donated by Noah Stewart)

The first court hearing for Timothy Herrington, the killer charged with the murder of Jimmie “Jay” Lee — a talented gay student at Ole Miss with a vibrant wardrobe and prolific means of expression. Popular among his peer groups, Jay Lee was known for activism on campus and for bombastic, energetic, and sexy performances in the Oxford drag scene, frequenting the popular local show “Code Pink”. 

Jay Lee disappeared three weeks ago and was presumed murdered one week ago. A body has not been located. 

A rally was organized by the mysterious Instagram account @justiceforjaylee to show support for the victim and his family. And to raise awareness about how this case affects all queer people in the South. 

This is a deeply complicated case that is surrounded by oppression and homophobia. Some forces seek to silence Jay Lee’s story. We cannot say much for certain, as details from the court have been tight-lipped. But let’s just say, when vibrant queer freedom collides with closeted life on the DL things can often turn dangerous and hostile. This case is a microcosm of how tough it can be to be a black queer person in the South. This case is further testimony as to how often beautiful LGBTQIA people are brutalized and sacrificed on the altar of privilege, to preserve the status quo. 

At 12:30 PM July 27th, 2022 in front of the Oxford Circuit courthouse, proceedings began inside while a rally in peaceful support of Jay Lee was held outside. 

A young person waves a golden sign that says, “Stop killing us.”

I covered this beat traveling with a small caravan of a broad coalition in support of Jay Lee and the safety and happiness of LGBTQIA people across the South. 

I have had no contact with Jay Lee before, outside of maybe being on a phone call together once for pride a couple of years ago. Word of Jay Lee reached my ears as a drag show director a little while ago. A promising talent is on the rise. Jay Lee was a favorite performer at the local Oxford drag event “Code Pink”. Fellow cast members mourn his passing. They miss their sister in drag. It’s like losing a soulmate when someone from our community of performers is taken from us. As drag artists, we come to know each other through intimate and character-building work creating art with lip-syncing, fashion, and dance. 

I have come to know Jay Lee by way of performers like Fendi Lefemme, Eliza Meow, and Lady Pluto. They recall Jay Lee as their fearsome sister in drag. Jay Lee inspired many other people to have fun and to begin to express themselves through performance and activism. A celebration show to honor the life of Jay Lee is currently being planned by the “Code Pink” cast. 

During the rally, I dodged around the courthouse to interview the people gathered for the moment. There were people from both sides. Timothy’s family had no interest in speaking with me. 

But what struck me were the many people who gathered with tears in their eyes. I recall people looking at the bright sky a lot as they talked about a young soul who was so obviously beloved. 

I spoke with a student named Jose, who was a friend and fan of Jay Lee’s. After seeing Jay Lee’s epic performances, Jose also became a drag artist. He had this to say about what it was like to know Jay Lee: 

“The best experience ever. He lives so unapologetically like that it radiates so much and it makes you want to live out how you want to live. He’s so carefree. He didn’t care what anybody had to say. If he wanted to wear a dress to school he would wear a dress to school that day. If he wanted to wear some heels to his 8 AM class, he would. Like, he wouldn’t care. Through that, he inspired me. When I saw him performing on stage for ‘Code Pink’ it inspired me. If my friend can do that, I can do it too! At the next one, I was there in some terrible drag right alongside my sister, Jay Lee, and we didn’t know what we were doing on that stage but we were together! And I remember Jay Lee would see me in drag and not expect it from me because I’m shy. Seeing Jay on that stage inspired me to want to do it. I loved drag but I was too shy. Jay was such a fierce performer. He would see me perform. And I know I didn’t even know what I was doing but Jay was always front and center, camera out, cheering me on, hyping me, it was always the best experience for real!”

*It is important to note that during interviews with other news sources I use she/her pronouns for Jay Lee. This was not intentionally misgendering. This was because most drag performers switch up pronouns for performances and I am interested in helping to make sure that Jay Lee’s work as an artist gets remembered. Please note that his chosen pronouns were he/him and we were able to clarify that from both friends and family. 

The rally was peaceful but not without queer rage. 

The chants of “Stop killing us!” were so loud. The chants of “Justice for Jay Lee” were so loud.

Local singer Effie Bird joined after having been to another rally elsewhere in the city. Effie helped to form chants and keep the rally on tempo. 

What do we want? 


For who? 

Jay Lee! 

For who? 

Jay Lee! 

The Memphis caravan was enthusiastic but did not seek to dilute the message. All eyes have to remain on Jay Lee. But the greater Memphis community wants to express effusive love for Jay Lee, as well as his blood family and the chosen family within the gay and drag community. This is a painful time. Allow us to help when you need space to mourn. One of us will carry you and chant for you. We promise.

I spoke with an employee of the student housing department, a woman named Courtney, who cleaned the dorm Jay Lee stayed in. Courtney recounted stories of seeing Jay Lee day to day and knowing Jay Lee: 

“Jay Lee had this great spirit. He was very outspoken and well-loved. I don’t care what his gender expression was, he was really really loved for being himself.” 

She also spoke to the ways that the student body expresses itself. Showing joy and pride for the vibrant and diverse student body of Ole Miss, she said:

“The youth now is completely different from how I was growing up. We have to accord ourselves with the lives of the young people. Not living 50-60 years ago. The world is different now.” 

“My son and nephew were killed in Chicago four years ago and we are just now about to have a trial in October. My heart goes out so much because I know that pain. I want closure. And I wish closure for these family and friends. I pray for closure. It’s not right to take somebody’s life. I want justice for my child and I know they want justice for their child. Such a beautiful young man.” 

Courtney’s words have stuck with me. I have listened to them over and over. The pain that Jay Lee’s family feels and the loneliness of this pain is felt by people all across the country who have lost family to violence. There are many mothers across the South watching with hands on their hearts, and tears in their eyes.

Jay Lee was a force of nature within the Oxford community. A friend of Jay Lee’s, who collaborated with him on student politics, had marvelous things to share about the talent Jay Lee had with people across the community and beyond. A powerful spirit who sees the liquid nature of culture. 

Maddy Ryan has this to say of her friend from clubs and student government: 

“I noticed that something that was striking about him was he was always trying to get to know people, not for any other motive, but he genuinely cares about people. I wanted to show up for Jay Lee the way he showed up for everyone on campus.” 

“Here is what I think is important about his legacy. He ran for homecoming king last year. He graduated early, by the way, it was pretty awesome! So he ran for homecoming king last year. I was on the elections review board for that so I couldn’t campaign. I was at a student activity fair painting on a cowboy hat or something. And Jay Lee approached me and I told him I couldn’t campaign. But he still kept trying to talk to me because he truly wanted to get to know everyone the best he could. The homecoming vote went into a runoff, and he didn’t win. But because of the way he campaigned, going from person to person with no signs or anything, was impactful. We’ve done away with signs and stuff since then because of the way he did things. Now people table and talk to each other. Just like Jay Lee. I don’t think he understands the impact he had on campus. Being kind. Being a big personality. He was someone you notice in a crowded room.”

In closing Maddy wanted to express this: 

“I hope that what comes from this is about Jay Lee. I hope it’s not about anyone else or anything else. I want it to be a celebration of him. And to make it right for his family. Looking forward I think this could become sort of a monster. Especially with the way people look at the South. I think this can bring good change in honor of Jay Lee. But it needs to be centered on Jay Lee. I know for me and the university community, we are centered on Jay Lee.” 

When one of us perishes from the violent and selfish tides of the straight, or straight passing supremacy, it makes all of our lives less safe. We need to be safe from violence. The lack of transparency from the court and investigation is a travesty. We deserve to know what goes on. Jay Lee’s family and friends deserve answers. They deserve closure. They deserve a hell of a lot better. 

The next rally will occur at 1 Courthouse Square Oxford MS Tuesday August 9th.

Arrival begins at 8. The trial begins at 10.

-signs expressing love for Jay Lee and anger at injustice
-waters and sport drinks
-A hat 
-A mask
-loose colorful clothing

-messaging unrelated to Jay Lee
-sharp objects or anything that can be used as a weapon
-drugs or alcohol at the rally

Memphis Caravan information:

Meet with cars and extra seats open on Tuesday Aug 9th next to the dog park in Overton Park at 7AM. We will arrange as many cars and rides as possible. Be prepared to make new friends and have a unique experience. Please bring a little cash for the drivers to offset gas money. 

The trial is set earlier to deter people from coming to rally for Jay Lee. We need to show up caffeinated and ready to smile and demand justice. 

#JusticeforJayLee #StopKillingUs