Stop dragging us down: How drag shows honor Jesuit values

Josie Schuman, Op/Ed Editor

As an anxious high school senior, I chose John Carroll because, after one visit, I knew the school valued community. I knew JCU wasn’t a place where you could easily get lost in the crowd, not just because it only takes 10 minutes to cross campus, but because people at John Carroll care.

Since then, I have seen the Jesuit value of cura personalis, or care for the whole person, active in numerous ways at JCU: the students who hold the door for you at uncomfortable distances, the professors who invite their classes over for dinner and past actions of the administration that aim to create an environment where all feel welcomed. 

However, on Monday, Sept. 9, President Michael Johnson cancelled the drag show that has been held at John Carroll for the past six years, taking a monumental step backward and jeopardizing the sense of community that is so integral to the university. 

In his email to the student body, Johnson justified his decision as a way to avoid the “divisiveness and discontent” that was present on campus last year as a result of the drag show. But, cancelling the drag show has had the opposite effect.

Campus is now more divided than before, damaging the very sense of community that brought me to John Carroll in the first place and the sense of community that should be at the heart of our identity as a Catholic, Jesuit university.

Community is at the root of JCU and, by no coincidence, the Catholic Church. One of the seven main themes of Catholic Social Teaching, a compilation of doctrines highlighting how Catholics can work to create a more just society, is The Call to Family, Community and Participation, which encourages us to preserve the value of community. In a description of CST, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops highlighted that “how we organize our society… directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community.”

In light of Johnson’s recent decision, we are not living out this Catholic principle for our LGBTQIA+ community, who, believe it or not, are part of the greater John Carroll community as well. Therefore, as members of the JCU community, LGBTQIA+ students, faculty and staff have a right to express themselves in whatever way they choose. If we as a Catholic university want to break out of our traditionalist mindset and uphold our values, we have a responsibility to support the LGBTQIA+ community in whatever ways are possible. 

Although Johnson claimed in his email that “John Carroll unambiguously supports our LGBTQIA+ community,” his decision to cancel the drag show because it is “not the best way to proceed” has given me, and others, mixed signals. How does the drag show differ from other LGBTQIA+ initiatives, such as the JCU group, LGBTQIA+ Allies, an on-campus organization meant to empower members of the JCU community? What is the basis of having one and not the other? In order to support the LGBTQIA+ community, we must be accepting of the culture as a whole. 

By not embracing the LGBTQIA+ community on campus (and in the world), we risk placing people on the margins and ostracizing members of our own community. In August 2018, the Rev. James Martin, S.J., addressed this tension between the LGBTQIA+ community and the Catholic church in America Magazine: “Is it surprising that most L.G.B.T. Catholics feel like lepers in the church?” 

The Rev. John Fitzgibbons, S.J, the president of Regis University, a Jesuit college in Colorado, also recognizes this problem and is making significant strides to address it. In November 2018, Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila criticized the university’s drag show: “Why is Regis University promoting and teaching an ideology that is contrary to what we know from the Scripture?” 

Two days later, Fitzgibbons replied to Aquila, stating that “no student or staff member who, in conscience before God, identifies as lesbian, gay or transgender, should ever be made to feel unsafe or unwelcome in our company. While a ‘drag show’ might appear out of place on a Jesuit, Catholic campus, once again, such events, like the Queer Resource Alliance, open a safe space, a merciful space, if you will, for LGBTQ students to show their care and support for one another.

“For us, to accompany LGBTQ persons with the mercy of Christ means allowing them the dignity of telling their stories and naming their experiences in terms that ring true for them, even while critically examining those terms in light of Catholic teaching,” Fitzgibbons continued. 

While Fitzgibbons acknowledged the friction between the LGBTQIA+ community and Catholic teaching, he is still working to create an environment where members of the LGBTQIA+ community feel safe and comfortable. Following the example of people like Fitzgibbons, we are called “to read the signs of the times,” a phrase developed during the transformational Second Vatican Council. In other words, we must reflect on our Catholic faith and apply it to what is happening in the world right now.  

Catholic teachings could not have anticipated the slew of modern-day issues that we see today, such as stem cell research, large numbers of people seeking asylum and drag shows. Therefore, we must engage in these discussions and talk about how Catholics should apply our knowledge of the dignity of human beings who are made in God’s image to the changing world in which we live. The Church must change as society changes, or we risk falling into a cycle of complacency and hypocrisy, which I have regrettably started to see here at JCU. 

In order to avoid this dangerous cycle, we can look to the Jesuits, who are at the root of our identity as a university. I know there has been tension between how the Jesuits and other Church leaders have operationalized Catholic values, but I want to highlight that the Society of Jesus is a Catholic order. Therefore, Jesuits are actually working to uphold Catholic morals.

However, as contemplatives in action, Jesuit beliefs do have an edge to them, an edge that comes from confronting the world directly — even if it causes “divisiveness.” I believe that this edge will propel us into the progress that we so desperately need.

As one of the first orders to venture beyond the monasteries and enter the world, the Jesuits recognize the importance of working for social justice. Working toward equality for the LGBTQIA+ community is a social justice issue. Jesuit teachings should be encouraging us to explore this tension between how our Catholic faith intertwines with the journey to a more just world. 

How can we continue growing when controversial issues are quashed in the name of fear? Johnson’s claim to cancel the drag show to avoid “divisiveness and discontent” has not only offended our identity as Catholic and Jesuit, but also as a university. If we can’t disagree on a college campus, where can we disagree? This decision of so-called neutrality sets a dangerous precedent for the future of John Carroll. 

The recent decision about the drag show has threatened the sense of community I fell in love with three years ago. LGBTQIA+ students, faculty and staff are integral members of the JCU community, and by cancelling the drag show, we are making them feel unwelcome in their own home. To cancel the drag show in the name of preserving the community has the unintended consequence of doing just the opposite.