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Student-led LGBT+ organization sues West Texas A&M president after he canceled student charity drag show

<i>Michael Cuviello/Amarillo Globe-News/AP</i><br/>Several dozen protesters gathered Tuesday at West Texas A&M University in Canyon
Michael Cuviello/Amarillo Globe-News/AP
Several dozen protesters gathered Tuesday at West Texas A&M University in Canyon

By Raja Razek, Andi Babineau and Christina Maxouris, CNN

A West Texas A&M student-led LGBT+ organization and its leaders have filed a federal lawsuit after a student drag show was canceled Monday by the university’s president, who called such shows “derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny,” drawing backlash from students and free speech advocates.

The lawsuit filed Friday by the student organization, Spectrum WT, against university President Walter Wendler and other school leaders alleges that Wendler “is openly defying the Constitution.”

“In a published edict, President Wendler barred a recognized student group, Spectrum WT, from exercising its clear First Amendment right to put on a PG-13 charity drag show at a campus event hall with the aim of raising funds for LGBTQ+ suicide prevention,” the lawsuit, filed in US District Court in the Northern District of Texas, reads.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to stop the school from preventing the drag show from moving forward on March 31, and from holding similar future events on campus. They seek damages and attorneys’ fees for the school administration’s alleged First Amendment violations.

In an email to the school community Monday, 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 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 reads.

At the time, a university spokesperson declined to provide further comment on the president’s email, citing pending litigation.

“President Wendler’s edict canceling the student group’s charity drag show is textbook viewpoint discrimination. Of course, as a private citizen, President Wendler enjoys the First Amendment right to criticize expression he finds offensive, distasteful, or immoral. But as a public official, he cannot bar Spectrum WT and its members from exercising their First Amendment rights merely because he believes his personal opinions override the Constitution,” the plaintiffs say in their 45-page complaint.

CNN has reached out to Wendler, the university’s vice president, chancellor, and members of the Board of Regents of the Texas A&M University System for comment.

Proceeds from the show were due to support The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ young people.

Wendler’s decision and remarks drew backlash from both students and advocates.

A petition has previously said the university’s student body “is calling for the reinstatement” of the performance on campus and called its canceling an “indirect attack on the LGBT+, feminist, and activist communities of the WTAMU student body.”

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,” petition organizers write.

According to the university’s website, as of fall 2022, 9,275 students attend the school in the city of Canyon, about 20 minutes south of Amarillo.

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 CNN 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.

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CNN’s Nicole Chavez contributed to this report.

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