The president of a Texas university has been sued as part of a federal lawsuit against the school for canceling a campus drag show scheduled for March 31.
Last week, West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler sent a letter to students, faculty, and staff announcing that the student LGBTQ group Spectrum WT’s upcoming event, “A Fool’s Drag Race” — intended to raise money for The Trevor Project — had been canceled.
While Wendler said the idea of raising money for a suicide prevention organization was “a noble cause,” he also characterized drag as “derisive, divisive, and demoralizing misogyny” and even compared it to “blackface.”
“Does a drag show preserve a single thread of human dignity? I think not,” Wendler said. “As a performance exaggerating aspects of womanhood (sexuality, femininity, gender), drag shows stereotype women in cartoon-like extremes for the amusement of others and discriminate against womanhood. Any event which diminishes an individual or group through such representation is wrong.”
Wendler claimed that drag is sexist and denigrates women and that he would not allow any drag shows on campus.
In his email, he wrote that he “would not support ‘blackface’ performances on our campus, even if told the performance is a form of free speech or intended as humor. It is wrong.”
He continued: “Mocking or objectifying in any way members of any group based on appearance, bias, or predisposition is unacceptable. No one should claim a right to contribute to women’s suffering via a slapstick sideshow that erodes the worth of women.
“No amount of fancy rhetorical footwork or legal wordsmithing eludes the fact that drag shows denigrate and demean women — noble goals notwithstanding.
“A harmless drag show? Not possible. I will not appear to condone the diminishment of any group at the expense of impertinent gestures toward another group for any reason, even when the law of the land appears to require it.”
Spectrum WT President Bear Bright told the legal news website Law & Crime that they learned about the drag show’s cancellation on March 20 from Christopher Thomas, vice president for student affairs at West Texas A&M University.
Bright met with Thomas to discuss the matter, only to have Wendler send out a campus-wide email announcing that the university “will not host a drag show on campus” a half-hour after their meeting ended.
Enlisting the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), Spectrum WT filed a federal lawsuit claiming Wendler and school officials had violated their First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of expression.
In addition to Wendler, the lawsuit names as plaintiffs Thomas, in his capacity as the vice president for student affairs at the school; John Sharp, the chancellor of the Texas A&M University System; and the members of the Board of Regents of the Texas A&M University System.
The organizers of the drag show insist they intend to hold it, and have sought an injunction to force the university to allow the event on campus.
“That ‘law of the land’ is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit states, referencing Wendler’s letter to the campus community. “And our Constitution prohibits public officials, including public university presidents, from silencing Americans because a public official dislikes certain points of view.”
In a statement, FIRE noted that Wendler not only violated the First Amendment but a campus free speech law, enacted in 2020 by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), originally intended to protect devoutly religious and politically conservative students from censorship or being “canceled” by their more liberal counterparts.
That law states that a university “may not take action against a student organization or deny the organization any benefit generally available to other student organizations at the university on the basis of a political, religious, philosophical, ideological, or academic viewpoint expressed by the organization or of any expressive activities of the organization.”
When asked to respond to allegations of breaking the “expressive activity” law by Amarillo-based NBC affiliate KAMR-TV, the university declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.
In their lawsuit, the organizers of “A Fool’s Drag Race” note that the university never received complaints from students or staff that the drag show constitutes “harassment,” as Wendler alleged in his letter. Furthermore, they note, the university hosted a drag show in the campus’s student center in 2012, without incident.
The organizers’ arguments in their lawsuit underscore the fact that drag has only come under attack in recent years as social conservatives — particularly elected Republicans — have embraced attacks on drag as part of a larger political movement aimed at playing on people’s discomfort in order to curb LGBTQ visibility or public expressions of gender-nonconformity.
“College presidents can’t silence students simply because they disagree with their expression,” Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with FIRE, said in a statement. “The First Amendment protects student speech, whether it’s gathering on campus to study the Bible, hosting an acid-tongued political speaker, or putting on a charity drag show.”
Bright noted in a statement that the plaintiffs intend to use Wendler’s own rhetoric against him to prove he willfully violated both federal and state law.
“President Wendler has made it clear to us that he knows what his legal obligations are, but he chose to ignore them, and we are thankful to FIRE for taking up our case to protect our First Amendment rights,” Bright said. “Hopefully, this lawsuit will not just help us the LGBTQ+ students here at WTAMU protect our rights, but also help protect students’ rights across the U.S.”
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