Public-University President Faces Backlash for Canceling Student Group’s Drag Show

A public-university president in Texas has drawn fierce criticism and accusations of censorship for canceling a student organization’s planned drag show because he found it offensive.

Walter Wendler, president of West Texas A&M University, made the announcement in a strongly worded email to the campus community on Monday with the subject line “A Harmless Drag Show? No Such Thing.” In the message, Wendler described drag shows as “derisive, divisive, and demoralizing misogyny” and said he doesn’t think such events “preserve a single thread of human dignity.”

Wendler’s decision and justification have drawn criticism from First Amendment lawyers and others who say students at a public college have a legal right to perform in drag and attend the event. Students plan to hold protests on campus throughout this week. An online petition calling for the university to reinstate the drag performance has over 4,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

The now-canceled event, called “A Fool’s Drag Race,” was scheduled to feature student drag performers from across the campus “stomping it out to see who’s the fiercest of them all.” It was organized by student groups, including the gay-straight alliance at West Texas A&M. Proceeds and tips were to benefit the Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention organization for LGBTQ youth.

Drag events feature performers who typically dress in the clothes of a different gender and embrace an alternate identity. They include both men dressing as women, called drag queens, and women dressing as men, called drag kings. Proponents say they are important LGBTQ traditions that promote queer self-expression and gender experimentation.

However, Wendler feels differently about drag, according to his email. He wrote that his views were informed by his Christian faith.

“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,” Wendler wrote. “Any event which diminishes an individual or group through such representation is wrong.”

Wendler then compared drag shows to “‘blackface performances’” and to a previous instance of racial harassment on campus, and said he would oppose any event that “denigrates others.”

Students’ online petition criticized Wendler’s understanding of drag and his comparisons.

“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 states.

A spokesperson for West Texas A&M declined to comment on Wendler’s email.

Sam Burnett, president of the Amarillo Area Transgender Advocacy Group, said in an interview that Wendler’s statement is a “disgrace.”

“Drag is really just a performance of art,” Burnett said. “Drag has been around since the 17 and 1800s. When you think about it, performances of art back then, women did not perform in art. So the men wore dresses and they dressed in drag, and today’s no different.”

Burnett said most critics of drag — many of whom are conservative politicians claiming that the growing popularity of drag leads to “gender indoctrination” — should take time to understand what drag is and how complex it is. Burnett said the kind of drag performance the students intended to host was appropriate for an educational setting.

“There’s some raunchy performances in a bar because that’s a place for it, right? Just like there are strip clubs,” he said. “But those same strippers aren’t gonna put a performance on at the park. The performances that are going to happen at the parks and things like that are educational. They’re rated G.”

Regardless of Wendler’s personal beliefs about drag, legal experts said that the president’s decision likely ran afoul of the First Amendment, as well as other laws and policies that protect students’ rights.

Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting free expression, called the cancellation “an abhorrent trampling of students’ free-expression rights” and said it goes against university policy and expression norms on campus.

“Drag shows are an art form that deserve protection on campus like any other, and the idea that a university president would cancel this event based on his own political views makes this precisely the kind of action the First Amendment is meant to protect against,” Shahverdian said.

Wendler acknowledged legal implications in his email, but he said he wouldn’t support certain kinds of expression “even if told the performance is a form of free speech.”

“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,” Wendler wrote.

That statement surprised Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Wendler’s stance openly violates the rights of student performers, event hosts, and others on campus who might want to attend the show, Morey said.

It’s a “very unusual situation to have the president of a public university openly say that not only are they aware of their legal obligations, but they don’t care about them and plan to violate them anyway,” Morey said.

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