Constitutional Attorney Changes into Drag During Talk on Cancelation of West Texas A&M Drag Show

Speaker in drag addresses audience.
Image: Secular Student Alliance/YouTube

For those who have been following it, the saga of the banned drag show fundraiser at West Texas A&M took a new twist on Wednesday when Andrew Seidel—a constitutional lawyer, RD senior correspondent, and vice president of strategic communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State—paid a visit to West Texas A&M to give a supportive address to the student groups fighting the ban.

For those unfamiliar with this story, here’s the broad outline. LGBTQ student group Spectrum WT, along with the local chapter of Secular Students of America (SSA), planned to host a drag show on campus on March 31 of this year, with proceeds going to benefit LGBTQ suicide prevention advocacy group The Trevor Project. The student groups met all the university’s requirements, booked an on-campus venue, and began to advertise the event and sell tickets. Then, 11 days before the drag fundraiser was set to take place, WT President Walter Wendler, who has a record of inserting his right-wing Christian bias into his public roles, unilaterally canceled the performance via a pedantic email.

Seidel tells the story of the drag show cancelation at West Texas A&M (clip=5.5 minutes):

Much of the moralizing communique was couched in a faux-feminist argument that drag shows “denigrate and demean women,” but Wendler also cited his personal faith, basing part of his reasoning on the notion that “every human being is created in the image of God.” He even admitted that he was probably breaking the law, writing that he would not allow an event that offends him personally to go forward, “even when the law of the land appears to require it.” 

Wendler’s efforts earned him days of student-led protests; a lawsuit filed through free speech advocacy organization, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression); and an overwhelming loss in a nonbinding faculty no-confidence vote, which was partly motivated by his cancelation of the student drag show.

Because of WT’s West Texas location, the suit went before federal judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, the notorious right-wing Christian activist who has handed down numerous wildly ideological rulings—not least when he tried to ban mifepristone, the long-established key drug used in medication abortions, from the bench. The LGBTQ and secular student leaders at WT have not been deterred by Kacsmaryk’s ruling in favor of Wendler and are working to appeal.

For his part, Seidel told those present at his Wednesday afternoon talk in no uncertain terms that the students are correct about what the law and Constitution require—their right to free expression was violated—and that Wendler and Kacsmaryk are wrong. After providing an overview and history of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state in US constitutional law, Seidel moved on to discuss the Christian Right’s abuse of these key concepts. He noted how the weaponization of “religious freedom” as a bludgeon for Christian supremacy, in tandem with the Right’s successful scheme to stack the federal courts with Christian nationalist ideologues, is pushing the United States backwards on civil rights.

Seidel also addressed the history and significance of drag as an art form, noting that Shakespeare can’t be performed without crossdressing as it’s central to the plots of many of his comedies. As he made these points, Seidel changed into drag himself, concluding his talk in a long black skirt, pantyhose, robin egg blue heels, and a rainbow feather boa, which he continued to wear throughout the Q&A.

Seidel changes into drag (clip=3 minutes):

Speaking with RD about the event, Seidel noted  that “Texas is evolving into a Christian nationalist state, a lone star theocracy.” He told RD that Americans United believes strongly in taking the fight to red states that some might be tempted to write off as hopeless. Ever sharp with the facts at his fingertips, Seidel also noted that over 5 million Texans voted for Biden in 2020, insisting that there are no truly red or blue states, and that marginalized folks in GOP-controlled states deserve outside support.

Though it didn’t happen, Seidel knew he risked being escorted off the WT campus or possibly even arrested by changing into drag during his speech. When asked why he took that risk, he told RD that he considered it his ethical duty, as a “straight cis White American dude,” to use his privilege to defend those more vulnerable wherever possible.

As Seidel made his wardrobe change on stage, he asked rhetorically what, exactly, about his speaking in women’s clothing was a threat. At what point did it become a threat? The boa? The skirt? The shoes? He then mercilessly laid into Wendler’s hypocrisy, forcefully arguing that what’s threatening about drag is that it challenges the gender binary and thereby challenges the patriarchal norms supported by Wendler. In illegally and unilaterally blocking an innocent drag fundraiser from taking place on campus, Wendler wasn’t defending women. He was discriminating against LGBTQ folks and defending Christian patriarchy.

Reached for comment, WT student Marcus Stovall, vice president of Spectrum WT and president and founder of WT’s SSA chapter, called Wendler’s ban “reprehensible” and an example of “willful ignorance.” Marcus also told RD that, while there is a vocal minority opposed to what Spectrum stands for on WT’s campus, “there is a lot more support on campus than Wendler would like you to believe.” In an act of what some might call Texan defiance, Spectrum is planning to move ahead, not just with its legal appeal, but also with a drag show on campus this coming spring.

In a time when the Right is relentlessly attacking LGBTQ people and families, drag performances, and transgender rights, young people like Stovall provide hope. It’s also encouraging to see national figures like Seidel, author most recently of American Crusade: How the Supreme Court is Weaponizing Religious Freedom, join the fight for LGBTQ justice at the grassroots level where the key battles are fought. If you talk to young people involved in movement secularism, it’s clear that they see racial, women’s and LGBTQ issues as secular concerns and church-state issues, and that they want secular advocacy to focus on these issues rather than on flamboyantly spreading a message of godlessness. The raging Christian Right shows up on the ground. Other secular leaders might consider taking a page out of Seidel’s playbook to counter them going ahead. And if they want to do it in drag, so much the better.