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College president cancels student drag show, comparing drag to blackface

Students at West Texas A&M University have protested the decision, calling for the show to go on

More than 50 people gathered Tuesday at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Tex., to protest the university president's decision to cancel a drag show on campus. (Michael Cuviello/Amarillo Globe-News/AP)
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Students at West Texas A&M University had been planning a drag show for about three months. It wasn’t going to be a large event, organizers said. They’d arranged for a drag queen from the nearby town of Amarillo to DJ and judge a small group of student performers at an on-campus event hall. They planned to donate the proceeds of the show to a nonprofit.

On Monday, less than two weeks before it was set to take place, organizers suddenly learned that the show had been canceled by the university.

That day, university president Walter Wendler wrote in a schoolwide email that drag shows “denigrate and demean women” and called them an offensive performance comparable to blackface.

“A harmless drag show? Not possible,” Wendler wrote.

In what student advocates described as a surreal 48 hours, West Texas A&M suddenly found itself mired in the conservative movement targeting drag shows. Students protesting the ban were quickly joined by larger advocacy organizations that decried not only Wendler’s characterization of drag culture but also what they called a violation of students’ First Amendment rights at a public university. Student organizations have pledged to continue their protests and put on the show as planned.

“Our little school in Canyon, Texas, we never thought it would be on the map,” sophomore Lauren Stovall said in an interview with The Washington Post. “And especially not something like this that has the potential to do so much for the queer community.”

Wendler and West Texas A&M University declined to comment, citing pending litigation. A spokesperson did not respond to a question asking what litigation the school was involved in.

Texas Republicans have joined their colleagues in at least 13 other states in filing bills targeting drag shows this legislative session, according to a Washington Post analysis, amid a broader conservative effort to target LGBTQ rights at the state level. Among those proposed in Texas is a bill that would designate any establishment that permits performers dressed as a different gender as a “sexually oriented business.”

GOP targets drag shows with new bills in at least 14 states

The West Texas A&M drag show, “A Fool’s Drag Race,” had been planned by several student groups and was intended to be a charity drive, organizers said. Proceeds would have gone to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides mental health support for queer youth.

The occasion was small — seven student performers had signed up to participate before it was canceled, said sophomore Yadhira Avalos, vice president of F1RSTGEN, a student group supporting first-generation college students, and one of the show’s organizers.

“A lot of people didn’t even really know about it, I don’t think, until he sent that email,” Avalos said.

The show’s organizers had submitted the necessary paperwork to host the event and hadn’t received any pushback from the university until Monday’s announcement, said Stovall, the vice president of the LGBTQ student group Spectrum, which also helped organize the show. They were stunned, both by the nature of Wendler’s objections and what they saw as personally motivated overreach from a university president.

Wendler said drag shows “stereotype women” and called them “derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny” in his lengthy email to the university, which he also posted to a personal blog. He also compared the performance of drag to blackface and referenced his Christian faith, quoting from the Bible: “do to others what you would have them do to you.”

“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.”

The students who put together the show strongly objected to those characterizations.

“Drag is not an insult or anything like that,” Stovall said. “It’s a celebration of queerness, of gender, of femininity.”

“It’s not a mockery, it’s not misogynistic,” she added. “And I’d say that anyone who truly believes those things doesn’t understand drag and should go watch a show.”

Student groups allege that Wendler broke a school policy forbidding the university from acting against student groups on the basis of political, religious or ideological viewpoints. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression blasted Wendler’s order in a statement Tuesday and said he’d levied state power to violate students’ First Amendment rights.

“Wendler’s callous disregard for students’ rights is not a good — nor constitutional — look from a university president,” the group wrote.

Campus Pride, a nonprofit supporting LGBTQ student communities on college campuses, called Wendler’s characterization of drag “blatant ignorance” in a statement Tuesday.

“Presidents are there to make sure every student feels welcomed,” Shane Mendez Windmeyer, Campus Pride’s CEO, told The Post. “ … They have to be active learners about LGBTQ+ people and their history. Drag is part of that history.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, students at West Texas A&M protested at a fountain at the center of campus overlooked by Wendler’s office and demanded the university permit the drag show to continue. Spectrum has also called for Wendler to resign.

Stovall said the protests have been peaceful, and she and Avalos described a joyful mood at the fountain as students waved banners and rainbow flags, despite the presence of counterprotesters.

But Avalos added that tension over the president’s outspoken stance has crept into classrooms where, in asides, faculty members have offered support either for Wendler or for the students protesting him. Some of her friends don’t feel safe, she said.

“It’s kind of like there’s a secret battle,” Avalos said. “Like you feel it in the air.”

Avalos and Stovall’s organizations have called for protests to continue throughout the week. On Friday, Avalos said, they plan to demonstrate in drag outside of Wendler’s office.

The student organizations still plan to put on the drag show on its planned date, March 31, though they’re waiting to see if they’ll be allowed to perform it at a university venue like they had planned. Businesses in Amarillo have volunteered to host the show as well, Stovall said. After the show’s controversy reached the national stage, there’s one more change organizers said they might need to plan for.

“Yeah, we’ll definitely need way more seats,” Avalos said.