The president of West Texas A&M University canceled a student drag show intended to raise money for the LGBTQ community on Monday, calling such performances “derisive, divisive, and demoralizing misogyny,” which sparked outrage from students and free speech supporters.
Drag shows “discriminate against womanhood,” “compare them to blackface,” and there is “no such thing” as a harmless drag show, according to university president Walter V. Wendler in an email to the campus community.
“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,” the email read.
First Amendment Advocates Disagree
The Trevor Project is a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ young people, and the proceeds from the show were going to support the organization. The performance was planned for the 31st of March.
In light of the ongoing legal proceedings, a university spokesperson has declined to comment further on the president’s email. Students and advocates alike criticized Wendler’s choice and comments, saying they were unwise and unconstitutional.
A Change.org petition canceling the performance is an “indirect attack on the LGBT+, feminist, and activist communities of the WTAMU student body.” The petition said the university’s student body “is calling for the reinstatement” of the performance on campus.
The president’s comparison of drag performances to blackface was deemed in the petition to be “gross and abhorrent” and to have “an extremely distorted and incorrect definition of drag as a culture and form of performance art.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a group concerned with the academic freedom of speech and religion, wrote to Wendler to request that he reverse his decision because they were “seriously concerned.” Later, FIRE stated, “The First Amendment and Texas law protect student expression from administrative censorship.
“As an individual, Wendler can criticize this particular drag show, or the existence of drag writ large. No reasonable person would argue that public university administrators personally endorse the views expressed at every event hosted by every student group on campus. But as a government actor, President Wendler cannot co-opt state power to force his own views on the WTAMU community,” the statement said.
The Chronicle of Higher Education tweeted that a drag show that the university president canceled and condemned. You can see below:
First Amendment lawyers and others say students at West Texas A&M U. have a legal right to perform and attend a drag show that the university president canceled and condemned. https://t.co/RsuNK8bQzG
— The Chronicle of Higher Education (@chronicle) March 22, 2023
We’ll keep watching to make sure that WTAMU permits the show to continue, it continued. An organization that supports literature and free speech, PEN America, described the cancellation as an “abhorrent trampling on students’ free expression rights.”
Drag shows should be welcome on campus; censoring speech the university president dislikes should not,” Kristen Shahverdian, PEN America senior manager of free expression and education, said in a statement.
A number of bills, mostly in states with Republican governors, have sought to limit or forbid drag show performances as transgender issues and drag culture have become more widely accepted.
LGBTQ advocates have told CNN that these bills increase the community’s level of alarm, are discriminatory, and may go against the First Amendment.
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Tennessee was the first state to impose restrictions on open drag show performances earlier in March. On July 1st, the law will become effective. This year, a Texas House bill was introduced with the goal of regulating open-air drag performance venues. Anti-drag legislation is also being considered in at least nine other states.
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