West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler criticized drag shows as an event that “denigrates” women and canceled drag performances on campus.
Wendler emailed the university announcing that it would not host a planned drag show charity performance titled “A Fool’s Drag Race.”
“Drag shows are derisive, divisive, and demoralizing misogyny, no matter the stated intent. Such conduct runs counter to the purpose of WT. A person or group should not attempt to elevate itself or a cause by mocking another person or group,” Wendler wrote.
“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. It is wrong. I do not support any show, performance, or artistic expression which denigrates others—in this case, women—for any reason,” he declared.
“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. Supporting The Trevor Project is a good idea. My recommendation is to skip the show and send the dough,” Wendler continued.
WTAMU President Walter Wendler says there's "No Such Thing [as a] Harmless Drag Show" in a stunning statement vowing to violate the First Amendment if needed to censor a student-run drag show raising money for The Trevor Project. https://t.co/lhJ02ZaiVS pic.twitter.com/FFWmgGe2o4
— Alex Morey (@1AMorey) March 21, 2023
In response, “Spectrum,” the campus’s student organization that advertises drag events, argued that “drag is not a mockery,” but “a celebration of … queerness, gender, acceptance, love and especially femininity.”
The group urged Wendler to reinstate drag shows on campus, apologize, and resign from his role as university president.
A petition page started by the university’s students accused Wendler of lacking compassion for the “LGBT+” community and declared for him to reinstate the drag show on campus. So far, the petition has nearly 7,000 signatures. Students said they will hold weekly protests on campus to support “transgender rights.”
In a letter to Wendler, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a group focused on freedom of speech and religion, wrote it was “seriously concerned” by his decision to cancel a drag event and asked that he reinstate it. It accused Wendler of absorbing “state power to force his own views” on the university’s community.
PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization, called the drag events 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.
Tennessee is the first state to prohibit public drag show performances. Its law will go into effect on July 1, 2023.
On March 3, 2023, Texas lawmakers introduced a bill to regulate public venues hosting drag performances.
Legislation targeting public drag performances has been introduced in more than 14 states.