A student drag show aimed at raising money for the LGBTQ community was canceled Monday by West Texas A&M University’s president, who called such shows “derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny,” drawing backlash from students and free speech advocates.
In an email to the school community, university President Walter V. Wendler said drag shows “discriminate against womanhood,” compared them to blackface and said there was “no such thing” as a harmless drag show.
“A harmless drag show? Not possible. I will not appear to condone the diminution of any group at the expense of impertinent gestures towards another group for any reason, even when the law of the land appears to require it,” the email read.
Proceeds of the show were due to support The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ young people.
The show was scheduled for March 31.
A university spokesperson declined to provide further comment on the president’s email, citing pending litigation.
Wendler’s decision and remarks drew backlash from both students and advocates who said the move was wrong – and unconstitutional.
A Change.org petition said the university’s student body “is calling for the reinstatement” of the performance on campus and called its cancellation an “indirect attack on the LGBT+, feminist, and activist communities of the WTAMU student body.”
The petition said the president’s comparison of blackface and drag performances was a “gross and abhorrent comparison of two completely different topics” and “an extremely distorted and incorrect definition of drag as a culture and form of performance art.”
In a letter to Wendler, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a group focused on freedom of speech and religion in academia, wrote it was “seriously concerned” by his decision and asked that he reinstate the performance.
“The First Amendment and Texas law protect student expression from administrative censorship,” FIRE said a later statement.
“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.
“WTAMU must allow the show to go on — and we’ll continue watching to ensure that happens,” it added.
PEN America, a literary and free expression advocacy organization, called the cancellation 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.
As transgender issues and drag culture have increasingly become more mainstream, a slew of bills – mostly in Republican-led states – have sought to restrict or prohibit drag show performances.
LGBTQ advocates have told News84Media those bills add a heightened state of alarm for the community, are discriminatory and could violate First Amendment laws.
Earlier in March, Tennessee became the first state this year to restrict public drag show performances. Its law will go into effect on July 1.
A Texas House bill introduced this year also seeks to regulate public venues hosting drag performances.
At least nine other states are also considering anti-drag legislation.