State Watch

Students, LGBTQ group sue Texas university over canceled drag show

Rainbow Pride flag (Getty)
Rainbow Pride flag (Getty)

Two west Texas university students and an on-campus LGBTQ organization are suing the school, its president and governing board, as well as the university system, over the abrupt cancellation of a charity drag show last week, arguing the administration’s decision violates students’ right to freedom of expression.

“[C]anceling the student group’s charity drag show is textbook viewpoint discrimination,” states the lawsuit filed Friday by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) on behalf of two students at West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) and Spectrum WT, an on-campus LGBTQ student group.

An on-campus drag show organized by Spectrum WT that was scheduled for March 31 was canceled last week by university President Walter Wendler, who wrote in an email to students, faculty and staff that he believes drag performances are misogynistic and compared them to blackface. Wendler in the email also referenced his own religious beliefs.

“I believe every human being is created in the image of God and, therefore, a person of dignity,” Wendler wrote, later adding, “Does a drag show preserve a single thread of human dignity? I think not.”

Wendler’s message has sparked outrage within the university community, and students on WTAMU’s campus last week protested the drag show’s cancellation with LGBTQ Pride flags and signs that read “Women for Drag,” “Drag is Rad” and “Everybody Say Love.”

One petition urging Wendler to reinstate the drag event and resign as university president has collected more than 12,000 signatures.

“We are holding this drag show whether we have his support or not,” a group of WTAMU students wrote in the petition, “but his extreme lack of compassion for the LGBT+ and activist student population on campus shows with this latest e-mail.”

The petition’s organizers have also launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the drag event and The Trevor Project, the LGBTQ youth suicide prevention organization that the initial drag show had been organized to benefit.

“We cannot comment due to litigation,” university spokesperson Kelly Carper Polden told The Hill.

The FIRE lawsuit against Wendler and the university system argues that Wendler in canceling the drag show acted unlawfully and violated the U.S. Constitution.

“President Wendler’s betrayal of the First Amendment is causing Spectrum WT and its members immediate and irreparable harm,” the lawsuit states.

“College presidents can’t silence students simply because they disagree with their expression,” Adam Steinbaugh, one of the organization’s attorneys, said Friday. “The First Amendment protects student speech, whether it’s gathering on campus to study the Bible, hosting an acid-tongued political speaker, or putting on a charity drag show.”

In a statement released by FIRE, Bear Bright, an undergraduate student at WTAMU and the drag event’s primary organizer, said he hopes the lawsuit will help protect the rights of LGBTQ students on college campuses nationwide.

“President Wendler can skip the show if he doesn’t want to see it, but he doesn’t get to describe how people express themselves,” Spectrum WT, which is headed by Bright, wrote Friday in a post on Instagram. “Drag shows are constitutionally-protected free expression, and President Wendler is a public official who must follow the law.”

Tags LGBTQ rights

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