John Carroll community in uproar over cancelled drag show

Sophia Maltese, Managing Editor

“We have gotten our artistic and academic freedom taken away from us, it seems, without good reason,” said Autumn Franz, president of LGBTQIA+ Allies, after learning that the annual John Carroll University drag show was cancelled on Wednesday, Aug. 28. Though the show has been an annual event since 2013, President Michael Johnson cancelled it, citing a column published last fall in The Carroll News that triggered controversy as the reason why. The show was set to occur Sept. 14.

The students who attended the closed, by-invitation-only Aug. 28 meeting with Johnson withheld the information until classes began on Sept. 3, at which point, Leah VanDine, Student Government vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, broke the news via Twitter. She maintained that “[Johnson’s] reasoning lies in neutrality, as he believes we all need to educate ourselves on ‘the other sides’ views.’ As all activists know, neutrality just emboldens the oppressor.”

Johnson’s “neutral” stance is a product of the discord embedded into campus during the fall of 2018. Then-Carroll News opinion editor Declan Leary detailed his opposition to the drag show and its supposed problematic concurrence with John Carroll’s Jesuit identity in a column entitled “Drag Queens and Jesuits.” Calling the drag show a, “flagrant celebration of sexual perversity,” and urging newly-inaugurated Johnson to consider “whether to redeem the muddled Catholic character of this institution or to continue its descent into heathenry and heresy,” Leary ignited contention that fueled a free speech vs. hate speech debate on campus last year.

Nearly a year later, the tension remains. This is evident in the cancellation of the drag show and verified in Johnson’s official statement, in which he announced, “I communicated my concerns regarding the divisiveness on campus related to the Carroll News and the need for respectful discourse.”

When The Carroll News reached out to Johnson for comment, he refused to answer. When asked what this “respectful discourse” would include, Mike Scanlan, a University spokesperson, declined to answer. When asked how the administration made the decision to cancel the drag show, Scanlan could not provide an answer.  

“He only met with Allies and student orgs about this twice last semester. So, we were not heavily involved in this decision at all,” said VanDine. Moreover, Scanlan confirmed VanDine’s contention that the decision to cancel the drag show was made prior to Johnson’s Aug. 28 meeting with select faculty, staff and students.

“In my judgment,” Johnson said in the Sept. 9 statement, “the drag show is not the best way to proceed. Rather, we need more and better programming that promotes the awareness and understanding of all identities on campus, especially our LGBTQIA+ students, and creates broader engagement.”

Students, including Leary, were not convinced that Johnson’s rationale as expressed in the statement was accurate. “The University spokesperson’s claim was that they wanted to avoid the ‘divisiveness.’ If you take that at face value, then [the cancellation of the drag show] can only be because of the responses. If I had just written some crazy op/ed and nobody really paid any attention to it, it wouldn’t have had any impact in that sense. It’s when someone writes a crazy op/ed and dozens of people start freaking out about it, very loudly, that you get drag shows cancelled,” said Leary.

Through the “divisiveness” on campus and uncertainty produced by University officials, faculty and students are pursuing “respectful discourse” and “broader engagement” independent of a University response. Philip Metres, chair of the Peace, Justice, and Human rights program, wrote and circulated a letter of disagreement that approximately 25 faculty members endorsed. VanDine and Lauren Phillip, Student Government vice president for Communication, created a petition that amassed over 800 signatures and a GoFundMe page supporting an off-campus drag show that collected nearly $2,300 in donations.

Additionally, Allies enumerated their demands and sent a list to University officials.

Students also enacted a protest that was not officially approved by the Office of Student Engagement as the University’s Student Protest and Rally policy requires. Roughly 15 students participated by walking around campus, holding signs. VanDine confirmed that Allies informally discussed the matter with OSE staff prior to the action. 

Despite measurable response, Scanlan could not confirm whether or not the University would answer the demands.

Johnson is waiting until he can provide confident answers to the many questions students have, said Scanlan. Until then, Johnson is neither meeting with media outlets nor addressing campus uncertainty.

The University has repeatedly provided slow comment respecting important campus issues, as is apparent through the Sept. 9 release of Johnson’s latest statement on a matter disclosed to campus a week prior. Furthermore, quoted Johnson’s statement on Sept. 5, four days before it was released to the John Carroll community. Johnson’s hesitation to address controversy is illustrated especially prominently by the April 26, 2019, release of Johnson’s opinion regarding Leary’s Sept. 20, 2018, article.

Metres expressed some understanding for Johnson’s hesitancy. 

“He’s the first lay president of John Carroll,” said Metres, “and he’s also a convert to Catholicism. So maybe [there’s a] question about his authority to speak on these issues. There might be some level of uncertainty there, which we could understand.”

Still, students are taking action. “We want to mostly respect his decision for now because we want to get as much student traction as we can for us to put on a significantly larger show,” said VanDine. “We usually have about 200 or 250 people in attendance [at previous drag shows]. We want to have something that is very large and something that the administration can’t ignore.”

There is a possibility that this year’s show will be hosted by an outside sponsor. According to VanDine and Philip, Case Western University, Cleveland State University and the Cleveland Ensemble Theater have offered to host the drag show. 

Further, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national non-profit organization dedicated to defending First Amendment and other student rights, reinforced and offered support for VanDine’s, Philip’s and Franz’s sentiments. FIRE sent a six-page letter to Johnson, underlining the legal implications of Johnson’s actions. 

“If students’ freedom of expression rises or falls based on whether that expression is acceptable to other members of the community,” FIRE explained in the letter, “they have no such freedom at all, and the institution’s commitments have no meaning.”

FIRE is demanding a response from Johnson by Sept. 16.

The Carroll News will continue to publish updates as the story develops.