April 19, 2024

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Texas A&M, America’s Largest College, Won’t Say Why It Defunded Its Campus Drag Show

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Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

When Texas A&M University held its first-ever drag show two years ago, it was met with resistance almost immediately. Right-wing student groups lobbied to shut it down, collecting over 1,800 signatures on a Change.org petition claiming the February 2020 event would foster a “climate of degradation” on campus. Dozens of protesters gathered outside Texas A&M’s Rudder Auditorium holding signs reading “God Created Them Male and Female” and “Texans Reject Transgender Tyranny.”

The backlash was even worse the following year. A petition referring to the show—dubbed “Draggieland” in a reference to the college’s nickname–as “sinful” and “immoral” this time attracted nearly 20,000 signatures. It was accompanied by an even larger rally. Daniel Hou, the executive showrunner of Draggieland 2022, says protesters flicked holy water at LGBTQ+ students with their fingers.

Despite the blowback, the shows were an enormous success. The criticism unintentionally backfired by serving as free advertising for Draggieland, leading to both performances completely selling out. (Some students and faculty members who couldn’t get tickets joined counter-protesters outside the event.) RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Mo Heart and Alyssa Edwards presided over the 2020 and 2021 shows, respectively, as local amateur drag entertainers competed for the title of “Queen of Draggieland.”

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Hou says that seeing such a strong show of support for the LGBTQ+ community at Texas A&M “meant the world” to him. America’s largest college by enrollment is also one of the nation’s most staunchly Republican schools: From 2012 to 2015, the Princeton Review ranked the Bryan-College Station campus—which counts more than 72,000 students—as the best college in the country for conservatives to attend.

“I cried,” Hou told The Daily Beast. “In both years, I danced in my seat. It was the most fabulous celebration of our culture and our history that Texas A&M could ever sponsor and put on. I was really proud of Texas A&M. For a solid two years, I thought, ‘Okay, y’all are doing it! Y’all are doing the work.’”

That hope was short-lived. After two years of partnering with the event, Texas A&M abruptly disaffiliated from Draggieland last year and pulled sponsorship for the 2022 show. Although Draggieland is primarily funded through ticket sales, the university has in years past helped finance its upfront costs—including booking headliners–and the show pays them back through profits raised from the event. Without that assistance, students have been forced to fundraise to put on the show themselves.

What makes matters worse is that organizers say they haven’t been offered an explanation as to why Texas A&M pulled out of Draggieland, even after nearly eight months of trying to get answers from the school. Frey Miller, president of the trans student group Transcend, tells The Daily Beast that the move “puts into context how institutional and systemic queerphobia on Texas A&M’s campus is.”

“Texas A&M has made it very clear that administration is also part of that discrimination,” Miller said. “They are actively making decisions that discriminate against the LGBTQ student body for the purpose of making sure that LGBTQ representation is not part of the face of Texas A&M.”

The decision dates back to August 2021, when Texas A&M’s on-campus programming committee, MSC Town Hall, was notified by administration that the school would no longer be hosting Draggieland. MSC Town Hall plans between 30 and 40 large-scale events throughout the year, and internal committees within the department work with student groups to coordinate ideas for the coming semesters. A 2022 proposal for Draggieland hadn’t even been submitted yet when the event was dropped.

MSC Town Hall Chair Bradin Hanselka says that he was informed by administration that if his team attempted to propose bringing the show back, consequences could include the department’s “possible removal” from Texas A&M’s Memorial Student Center or the “possible termination of staff.”

“From my perspective, there was no attempt to involve any students or MSC staff in this decision, nor has any reasoning for the decision been released,” Hanselka told The Daily Beast in an email.

The LGBTQ+ student groups behind Draggieland say they were never directly contacted by Texas A&M administration regarding the decision. Miller says that the show’s organizers—which includes their organization, Transcend—still have “absolutely no idea what criteria were used to determine this decision or what makes an event OK to be sponsored and OK to be affiliated with an official university department.”

“The issue has really not been addressed,” Miller says. “The decision-making logic behind the ruling has yet to be disclosed in any capacity.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Alyssa Edwards, of RuPaul's Drag Race, performed at DraggieLand in 2021.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Joey Ward/Aggieland Yearbook</div>

Alyssa Edwards, of RuPaul’s Drag Race, performed at DraggieLand in 2021.

Joey Ward/Aggieland Yearbook

While campus LGBTQ+ groups say they plan to still host Draggieland independently, the lack of support from Texas A&M has made putting on the event more challenging. Expenses from previous years have totaled as much as $20,000, and students have been forced to fundraise the entirety of that sum themselves. Zanab Toppa, finance chair for Draggieland, says organizers have, thus far, raised more than $7,000 in small donations, with additional funds still coming in.

While LGBTQ+ students say they are grateful for the support they have received from donors, hosting the event themselves has been a major burden, pulling them away from their studies and other commitments. “It puts a huge responsibility on students,” Miller says of planning the show. “We are happy to do it because it’s very important to us, but it’s also being done in a capacity that is actively hurting LGBTQ students.”

Toppa, who serves as president of the LGBTQ+ networking group oSTEM, questions why student organizers were put into this position to begin with. Draggieland was one of Texas A&M’s most profitable student events, and Toppa says MSC Town Hall had $8,000 in reserves for this year’s show based on profits from 2021. They were particularly shocked, Toppa adds, because Draggieland was awarded MSC Town Hall’s Program of the Year in 2021 and was a strong contender to win again this year.

“I personally did not see a reason why the university would disaffiliate it, aside from personal influences,” Toppa says of the show. “The circumstances regarding Draggieland this year are not an isolated event, and it’s important to frame it within the context of a series of administrative decisions concerning student affairs that were made without students’ input.”

Critics say the controversy over Draggieland is part of a much longer history of Texas A&M standing in the way of LGBTQ+ organizing on its campus. In 1977, a group known as Gay Student Services sued after administrators refused to grant it official recognition, citing Texas’ laws outlawing sodomy, which remained on the books until the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas ruling in 2003. The lawsuit made it all the way to SCOTUS before it was resolved by a 1984 lower court decision in favor of LGBTQ+ students.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Contestants at DraggieLand 2021. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Joey Ward/Aggieland Yearbook</div>

Contestants at DraggieLand 2021.

Joey Ward/Aggieland Yearbook

Today, Texas A&M recognizes several LGBTQ+ student groups—including LGBTQ Aggies, also a sponsor of Draggieland—but things have stayed the same as much as they have changed. Last year, a faculty member responded an email thread regarding a planned Pride Month event by accusing organizers of seeking to “promote or celebrate sexual perversions,” according to the student newspaper The Battalion.

LGBTQ+ students claim Texas A&M has done little to address homophobia and transphobia on its campus. In February, the Texas A&M chapter of Young Americans for Freedom hosted a lecture from right-wing commentator Matt Walsh in the Memorial Student Center ballroom. Walsh, who hosts a popular podcast for conservative news site The Daily Wire, used the speech to refer to “left-wing gender ideology” as an “incoherent, dangerous, destructive, insane, toxic, poisonous, horrible mess.”

The university did not release a statement condemning the remarks following the event. Just hours before Walsh spoke at Texas A&M, The Daily Beast reported that a producer for his show had attempted to obtain interviews with trans activists by falsely claiming that the conversations were part of a student documentary.

Hou says incidents like these make being an LGBTQ+ student at Texas A&M “bittersweet.” While he is proud of the work that campus groups like Transcend and LGBTQ Aggies have done to make the college more inclusive, Hou notes that Texas A&M was recently the subject of an exposé in The Battalion over its increasing ties to influential lobby groups like the Rudder Association. The right-wing alumni organization’s website asserts its mission as putting “the ‘Aggie’ back in Aggieland.”

“Over these past four years, it’s been amazing to create a space for myself and to create a space for LGBT people of color and LGBT people in general,” says Hou, who is a senior this year. “It’s beautiful, it’s moving, but it’s also hard work.”

Texas A&M did not respond to requests for comment on this story prior to publication, but even without the school’s support, LGBTQ+ students vow to keep fighting to make their college a safer place for their peers. The 2022 edition of Draggieland is scheduled for April 18, and organizers say the theme is “shine through” as a testament to the community’s perseverance. Rather than bringing in big-name entertainers, the goal of this year’s event is to showcase local drag performers in the Bryan-College Station area.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Students counterprotest to raise awareness about anti-trans legislation in Texas and condemn the discrimination that the LGBTQ+ community faces at Texas A&M. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Frey Miller</div>

Students counterprotest to raise awareness about anti-trans legislation in Texas and condemn the discrimination that the LGBTQ+ community faces at Texas A&M.

Frey Miller

Miller hopes the audience takes the theme to heart after a tough year for LGBTQ+ Texans. Many of their classmates, Miller says, are directly affected by a February order from Gov. Greg Abbott directing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to investigate supportive parents of trans youth for “child abuse.” The policy has been temporarily blocked in court as advocates sue to overturn it.

Although Miller wasn’t able to attend Draggieland in previous years, they say that what’s so special about the show is that it inspires LGBTQ+ students to “look their best and be their loudest,” no matter what else is going on in their lives. Many students attending the event dress as flamboyantly as possible to try to one-up the drag performers on stage, and Miller says it’s customary to “see people walking into the venue absolutely made up: the gown, the pumps, and everything.”

“A lot of times when queer people get together on Texas A&M’s campus, it is holding together against hate, as opposed to in support of our own representation,” they say. “The fantastic thing about Draggieland is that people can get together to celebrate queerness instead of fighting against queerphobia.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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