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West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler is drawing ire for canceling a student drag show, arguing that such performances degrade women and are “derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny.”
Students and First Amendment lawyers reject those assertions, calling his comments a mischaracterization of the art form. They also argue that the cancellation violates student’s constitutional rights and a state law that broadly protects free speech on college campuses, potentially setting the university up for a lawsuit.
“Not only is this a gross and abhorrent comparison of two completely different topics, but it is also an extremely distorted and incorrect definition of drag as a culture and form of performance art,” students wrote in an online petition condemning Wendler’s letter and urging him to reinstate the show.
Students plan to protest every day this week on the campus in the small West Texas city of Canyon, according to a social media post by the Open and Affirming Congregations of the Texas Panhandle.
“Drag is not dangerous or discriminatory, it is a celebration and expression of individuals,” student Signe Elder said in a statement. “Amidst the current climate of growing anti-trans and anti-drag rhetoric, we believe that it is important now more than ever to stand together and be heard.”
Elder is part of a group of students who have organized under the name Buffs for Drag to protest Wendler’s actions.
Drag shows frequently feature men dressing as women in exaggerated styles and have been a mainstay in the LGBTQ community for decades. Drag performers say their work is an expression of queer joy — and a form of constitutionally protected speech about societal gender norms.
But Wendler said drag shows “stereotype women in cartoon-like extremes for the amusement of others and discriminate against womanhood” in a Monday letter that was first obtained by Amarillo news site MyHighPlains.com. Wendler said the drag show was organized to raise money for The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that works to reduce suicides in the LGBTQ community. Wendler noted that it is a “noble cause” but argued the shows would be considered an act of workplace prejudice because they make fun of women.
“Forward-thinking women and men have worked together for nearly two centuries to eliminate sexism,” Wendler wrote. “Women have fought valiantly, seeking equality in the voting booth, marketplace and court of public opinion. No one should claim a right to contribute to women’s suffering via a slapstick sideshow that erodes the worth of women.”
His comments and decision to cancel the campus drag show come amid surging uproar over the lively entertainment as far-right extremist groups have recruited conservatives to protest the events, claiming that drag performances are sexualizing kids.
Republican Texas lawmakers have also homed in on the performances with a handful of bills that would regulate or restrict drag shows, including some legislation that would classify any venue that hosts a drag show as a sexually oriented business, regardless of the show’s content. On Thursday, a Senate committee will debate a scaled-back bill that would impose a $10,000 fine on business owners who host drag shows in front of children — if those performances are sexually oriented. The bill defines a sexually oriented performance as one in which someone is naked or in drag and “appeals to the prurient interest in sex.”
Rachel Hill, government affairs director for LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Texas, said drag doesn’t mock women. Instead, she said, it’s an art form that allows performers to explore their gender expression and take back power from what she said can be stifling gender norms.
“Drag has always been a way for people who don’t easily fit into the gender binary to embrace different facets of themselves,” Hill said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “Womanhood comes in all shapes and sizes and is what we make of it. That’s what makes drag so powerful.”
West Texas A&M student groups were organizing the drag show, called “A Fool’s Drag Race,” for months. The LGBTQ student group Spectrum advertised the show on its Instagram page, encouraging people to sign up to perform.
Wendler argued in his letter that the West Texas A&M drag show goes against the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s purpose, saying it’s inappropriate even if drag shows are not illegal.
A lawyer for the national campus free speech group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression rejected that argument as “nonsense.”
“The only prejudice in play here is his,” said lawyer Alex Morey, arguing that Wendler has violated state and federal law by canceling the show.
In a statement to The Texas Tribune, Morey said that performances on campus such as drag shows are protected by the First Amendment.
“By unilaterally canceling the event because he personally disapproves of the views it might express, WTAMU’s president appears to have violated both his constitutional obligations and state law,” Morey said. “It’s really surprising how open he is about knowingly violating the law, especially because government officials who violate clearly established First Amendment law will not retain qualified immunity and can be held personally liable for monetary damages.”
The students who started the petition also accused Wendler of violating university policy, which states the school can’t deny student groups any benefits “on the basis of a political, religious, philosophical, ideological, or academic viewpoint expressed by the organization or any expressive activities of the organization.”
In 2019, Texas lawmakers passed a law that required universities to allow any person to engage in free-speech activities on campuses. The law passed with broad bipartisan support.
A West Texas A&M spokesperson said Tuesday morning that Wendler did not have any further comments. The Texas A&M University System, which oversees West Texas A&M, also declined to comment.
Last year, Texas A&M University in College Station drew criticism from students when the office of student affairs announced it would no longer sponsor Draggieland, the annual drag show competition that started in 2020. Students held the performance last year after raising money through private donations. This year’s event is scheduled for April 6.
Alex Nguyen contributed to this story.
Disclosure: Equality Texas, Texas A&M University, Texas A&M University System and West Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune