COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — College is a place that’s intended to be welcoming and open to all.
“There’s a space for everything here, but it is upsetting when you try to put a limit on that diversity,” said E Vigil.
But these last few weeks for Vigil at Tennessee Tech have felt far from inclusive.
“This is a place of gathering ideas and beliefs and values and exchanging them, and if you’re not allowing that to happen then you’re restricting free speech and expression,” they said.
Vigil is the president of the Lambda Gender and Sexuality Alliance on Tennessee Tech’s campus.
In early September, a video of drag show held on campus went viral causing backlash and prompting President Phil Oldham to respond.
On September 8, he released a statement saying:
I am disturbed and dismayed about the activities in a video circulating on social media from a recent event on Tennessee Tech’s campus.
I do not feel the activities in the video represent Tech’s values, and I do not condone explicit activity where minors are present. I also am offended by disparaging mockery toward any religious group.
To be clear, this was not a university sponsored event. No university funds were used. Two registered student groups facilitated the scheduling and promotion of the event. Although registered student organizations have the ability to reserve space on campus, the programming should not include obscene, lewd or explicit activities.
The university is investigating the activities that took place at this event and the circumstances surrounding its scheduling and promotion. As of now, all public events scheduled on campus by these sponsoring organizations are cancelled pending a review.
All students, faculty and staff deserve care and consideration, as well as representation and respect. The investigation focuses on the inappropriate involvement of minors and a review of our policies and procedures.Tennessee Tech President Phil Oldham
“Some people see it as too flashy or too much in some way, and I think that a lot of that is connected to homophobia and transphobia,” said Vigil.
Lambda GSA along with Tech Players — the school’s official drama club — says the president never reached out to find out what exactly happened before he released his statement.
“I was just really disappointed that such a statement was made by my university without communicating to the student organizations or to Upper Cumberland Pride or even to the Backdoor Playhouse,” said Tech Players President Emma Waltenbaugh. “Really, no communication was had.”
Vigil and Waltenbaugh told News 2 the video was from a drag event that took place on campus back in April.
Upper Cumberland Pride worked with Backdoor Playhouse to organize the April drag show.
Waltenbaugh says the university still has not reached out to her or the Tech Players.
“I’m a senior this year so I’ve been here for three years already and poured so much of my heart into this university,” she said. “To have the university not reach out to me was really hurtful.”
Vigil says they talked to the president recently who told their organization they had done nothing wrong but said he was temporarily pausing all scheduled drag shows on campus.
“They let us know we didn’t violate any policies (and) that we weren’t in trouble,” they said. “What they did claim was under investigation was rather the policies being applied to public organizations and public events on campus and their policies on minors on campus.”
Saturday, a rally was held protesting this decision, and both groups say this issue is deeper than a drag show.
“We have all kinds of events,” said Waltenbaugh. “We have Christian events, we have drag shows, we have poetry readings, we have everything at the Playhouse, and having that freedom of expression is really important.
It’s that freedom of expression both student leaders say they love and hope will stay for every student on campus.
“There are going to be people that do things you don’t like, but that’s no good reason to make threats towards people or try and get the president of the university to try and shut something down because you don’t like it,” said Vigil.
Faculty member Cyril Focht, other faculty and students released a joint statement that reads:
We are disturbed and dismayed by president Oldham’s statement on the drag show that was recently hosted by two student groups on campus.
President Oldham refers to the performances in this drag show as obscene. The boundaries of what is considered obscene are notoriously broad and unclear, as demonstrated by many landmark cases in the supreme court that have dealt with matters of obscenity. Statements that place our students, especially queer sudents, into this category of the obscene matter to their well-being on our campus, and our university has a history of failing to protect the well-being of our queer students.
Drag shows as we know them emerged in response to policing of queer bodies, which occurred socially through harassment and physical violence and was supported by anti-cross-dressing laws that criminalized non-traditional gender expression. This violence was done under the same claims of obscenity. The performance of drag became an outlet to subvert the power and violence being exerted on them, and the “disparaging mockery” of christianity—as president Oldham refers to it—is a part of the same subversion of power dynamics, since christianity plays such a large role of the normative culture at the source of this violence.
By casting our students as obscene, president Oldham is inviting harassment and violence toward them from their peers, and continuing a long history of ostracizing members of our community for falling outside cultural norms. The safety of our students, and providing them a safe environment for learning, should be the most important of our values as educators. Whether or not these students otherwise represent our campus values should not jeopardize their safety, which our president is doing in very subtle ways with his statement. We call on all faculty, students, staff, and community members to speak out in support of our queer students. You can add your signature to this letter by filling out this form https://forms.gle/pZ35DVCC5TnvF8PC8Faculty Member Cyril Focht, faculty and students
Upper Cumberland Pride also provided News 2 with the following statement:
We at Upper Cumberland Pride are proud to work with and support LAMBDA GSA, The Backdoor Playhouse, and The Tech Players through the unfortunate events that have taken place as of late concerning the misinformation about the drag shows held at Backdoor Playhouse at TTU. We stand firm and proud next to them as they raise their voices. This is not only an attack against the LGBTQIA student body but also the first amendment rights on campus. We at UCP and the members of the local community will continue our support to these students and student organizations moving forward.Upper Cumberland Pride
News 2 reached out to Tennessee Tech University for a response to these claims, but we have yet to hear back.