West Texas A&M President Cancels Student Drag Show

University President Walter Wendler called drag shows “derisive, divisive and demoralizing” and compared the performances to blackface.
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Published on March 23, 2023
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  • A student-organized drag show at West Texas A&M University aimed at raising money for charity was scheduled to take place March 31.
  • In a letter, the president of the university canceled the show March 21 and said that drag performances are "misogynistic" and "sexist," among other things.
  • Students are protesting the president's decision and asking him to reinstate the show.

Students at West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) are taking action after a student-organized drag show was canceled by the university's president, who vowed to violate the First Amendment rather than allow the performance to proceed.

The March 31 drag show was organized by students at the Canyon, Texas, university to support the Trevor Project, an advocacy group focused on suicide prevention efforts of LGBTQ+ youths.

But WTAMU President Walter V. Wendler canceled the event March 21 via a 740-word email to students and faculty in which he called drag performances "derisive, divisive and demoralizing."

There was "no such thing" as a harmless drag show, he said, and "drag shows stereotype women in cartoon-like extremes for the amusement of others and discriminate against womanhood."

"As a university president, I would not support 'blackface' performances on our campus, even if told the performance is a form of free speech or intended as humor," Wendler wrote. "It is wrong. I do not support any show, performance, or artistic expression which denigrates others — in this case, women — for any reason."

Students Respond, Launch Petition

Student groups, including the university's LGBTQ+ student organization Spectrum, have released statements and have protested against Wendler's decision.

"Drag is a celebration of many things; queerness, gender, acceptance, love, and especially femininity. To call it mockery or misogynistic is to miss the entire point of what drag is, and what drag does," a Spectrum statement read.

The group also called out Wendler for using religion to justify his cancellation of the show and asked him to step down as president of the university for his "history of making harmful comments about the LGBTQ+ community."

Additionally, a student petition calling for the reinstatement of the drag show has gotten over 9,000 signatures in three days.

"The reasons [Wendler] gave for canceling the show were that he viewed drag as something that promoted 'derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny,' citing religious texts and personal religious beliefs (in an email which was addressed to a public, non-religiously affiliated university), and comparing drag to blackface performances and other derogatory works," the petition read.

"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."

The petition also cites a WTAMU rule that says that the university may not take action against student organizations "on the basis of a political, religious, philosophical, ideological, or academic viewpoint expressed by the organization or any expressive activities of the organization."

"We are holding this drag show whether we have his support or not, but his extreme lack of compassion for the LGBT+ and activist student population on campus shows with this latest e-mail," the petition read.

In contrast, an opposing petition posted on Conservative Change aimed at "encourag[ing] Dr. Wendler and WTAMU to not be swayed by the angry voices of those who are opposed to the truth about drag shows" has gotten just over 3,000 signatures.

'Stunning' Violation of the First Amendment

First Amendment groups have also taken issue with Wendler's reasoning.

In a letter sent to Wendler, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) said that drag shows are protected expression.

"At the core of our national commitment to expressive freedom is that it cannot be curtailed on the basis that others … find certain ideas demeaning or offensive," the letter read. "...'no matter how offensive to good taste' some may find it, the expression 'on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of "conventions of decency".'"

FIRE also took issue with Wendler's knowledge that the "law of the land" is against his actions.

"Admitting that you are aware your authority as a state official is circumscribed by the First Amendment but that you nonetheless intend to violate the law to censor student speech is particularly stunning," FIRE added.