CANYON, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler, Vice President for Student Affairs Christopher Thomas, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp and other officials have been under scrutiny and named as defendants in a federal lawsuit in the last week in the wake of the cancellation of a WT student organization’s charity drag show.
As the full story can be buried under the flurry of responses both online and on-campus showing a mixture of support for Wendler or support for the student organization, Spectrum WT, and its drag show, MyHighPlains.com has compiled an up-to-date timeline of the ongoing story.
Spectrum WT and “A Fool’s Drag Race”
According to claims from Spectrum WT, a Gay-Straight Alliance student organization described on the university website as focused on WT’s LGBTQIA+ students and allies that hosts various community events, organizers applied in January 2023 to use Legacy Hall in the Jack B. Kelley Student Center on March 31. The organization planned to host a charity drag show on that evening, intended to raise money for The Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization that centers around suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth. Spectrum WT said it received “tentative confirmation” to host the event on Feb. 27 and moved forward during March with logistics planning with university staff.
According to federal court documents, Spectrum WT President Barrett Bright was asked to meet with Thomas on March 20. During the meeting, Thomas allegedly said that the university was canceling the charity drag show, stating that “Wendler did not like the idea of the drag show, believing it discriminated against women.” Spectrum alleged in court documents that around 30 minutes later, Wendler sent out a letter to students, faculty, and staff commenting on the decision.
WT President Wendler’s Letter
On March 20, Wendler issued a letter to students, faculty, and staff commenting on the cancellation of the charity drag show. Wendler said in the letter that he believes drag shows do not preserve “a single thread of human dignity,” stating that it discriminates against womanhood.
“Such conduct runs counter to the purpose of WT…” said Wendler in the letter, “… I do not support any show, performance or artistic expression which denigrates others—in this case, women—for any reason.”
“No amount of fancy rhetorical footwork or legal wordsmithing eludes the fact that drag shows denigrate and demean women—noble goals notwithstanding,” Wendler said at the end of the letter. “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. Offering respect, not ridicule, is the order of the day for fair play and is the WT way. And equally important, it is the West Texas way.”
Protests and Petitions
In the wake of the letter, a number of protests and petitions emerged from students and community members both in support of and against Wendler’s decision and comments.
At least one Change.Org petition to reinstate the drag show mentioned in Wendler’s letter was published, citing members of the community and student body supporting the charity performance and claiming that its cancellation constituted a kind of attack on LGBTQ+, feminist, and activist demographics in the WT community.
There was also at least one petition published in support of Wendler and canceling the drag show, available on the ConservativeChange.org website.
Further, from March 20 through March 24, students and community members gathered outside the Student Union each day and demonstrated in favor of the drag show and condemning the messages in Wendler’s letter. Further, multiple WT alumni took to social media and announced intentions to stop financial contributions to the university and rescind future planned donations.
Other community members and students either passed by the protests throughout the week or participated in counter-demonstrations in the area, announcing support for Wendler and the drag show’s cancellation, including a Thursday demonstration promoted by Potter County Republican Chairman Dan Rogers.
Throughout the week, according to the WT University Police Department, the President’s Office received more than 600 messages in relation to the cancellation of the drag show, some of which were “inflammatory in nature.” However, as of March 24, police said that “no credible threats” had been made against Wendler or any others affiliated with the university.
Spectrum WT Files a Federal Lawsuit
On the morning of March 24, Spectrum WT and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed a lawsuit in Amarillo Federal Court against WTAMU and Texas A&M University System officials.
In the lawsuit, Spectrum WT and two of its student leaders are asking the court to:
- Stop the WT and Texas A&M officials from preventing the March 31 charity drag show;
- Stop the WT and Texas A&M officials from prohibiting future similar events;
- Issue a declaratory judgment that Wendler’s cancellation of the March 31 event, and his pledge to prevent similar events at WT, violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; and
- Grant the plaintiffs both compensatory, nominal, and punitive damages against Wendler in his individual capacity, including attorney’s fees and “any other and further relief as the Court may deem just and proper.”
Also on March 24, Spectrum’s legal team filed a motion for a “temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction” in the lawsuit, which would allow the group to host the drag show scheduled for March 31 without obstruction from the university and the university system. As noted in other reporting on MyHighPlains.com, the motion would also allow the organization to host similar events in the future without obstruction.
The organization states that the motion should be granted because, in their view:
- They are substantially likely to succeed on the merits of their claims;
- They are, and will continue to, suffer irreparable harm in the loss of their First Amendment rights;
- The balance of equities decidedly tips in favor of protecting First Amendment rights; and
- Public interest “always supports upholding the Constitution.”
On March 29, Spectrum’s legal team withdrew the motion for a “temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction” in the lawsuit, as the organization detailed in court documents that it had secured an off-campus venue for the charity drag show through a fundraising campaign started after filing the motion.
However, the request for a preliminary injunction remains, officials from the organization stressed. If approved by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, this preliminary injunction would prevent WT and the TAMU System from prohibiting future similar events on campus.
While the presiding judge had ordered the defendants in the suit to respond to the motion by 10 a.m. on March 30, a response filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and associates noted that the withdrawal meant there was no motion for the defendants to respond to.
Spectrum WT scheduled its “A Fool’s Drag Race” event for the evening of March 31 at Sam Houston Park. Officials said in a flyer obtained by MyHighPlains.com that the event will be free and will continue as a fundraiser for The Trevor Project.
This is a developing story. MyHighPlains.com will update this article as new information becomes available.
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