Seattle U Community Roiled by Student Newspaper Disappearance and Administration’s Response

Seattle University’s LGBTQ+ community and allies are left outraged and concerned about what kind of school environment the administration is fostering after a Jesuit faculty member admitted removing student newspapers which contained a cover photo from the  campus drag show. The remarks of the school’s president have added to the controversy.

In early April, Triangle Club, an LGBTQ+ student organization of this Catholic, Jesuit school hosted its 10th annual drag show. A few days later, The Spectator, an SU student publication, featured a cover photo of student Hunter Adams performing during the show (see image at left). Within 24 hours of distribution, copies of the publication disappeared from newspaper stands in three different campus buildings. Security footage showed a man removing stacks of the paper, and an investigation was launched to find the identity of the individual, according to a Spectator news story.

A few days after publication, President Fr. Stephen Sundborg, S.J.  voiced concerns surrounding the photo. In an interview with The Spectator, Sundborg said he felt that allowing the drag show was extremely tolerant, but “to have that as the cover of the newspaper” made him feel as though he had “been taken advantage of as president.” He told the Spectator that he was “very, very embarrassed and ashamed” by the publication of the cover photo.

Sundborg said the photo “offended all dignity and respect of sexuality and of persons of bodies (sic).” Criticizing the editorial staff, he added that anyone “who has a sense of propriety would find that [photo] offensive.”

Despite his strong disapproval, Sundborg denied any involvement in removing the publications and assured students that he objected to any violation of free speech. He suggested that the papers were all picked up organically by passers who were intrigued by the provocative image. The president assured The Spectator that he was not alone in his strong disapproval of the image.

Five days after the papers’ disappearance, English Professor David Leigh, S.J. emailed The Spectator staff to confess that he had emptied the newsstands from three different buildings because he had been concerned about what message the photo would send to the “new students and their families [visiting] for Accepted Students Decision Day.”

The incident and the president’s response has sparked a wide-ranging debate on campus.  Faculty and staff from the anthropology, sociology, and social work departments published an open letter in which they call on the president to “Meet with LGBTQ faculty. . . . .Support the creation of an LGBTQ Studies Minor. . . .Affirm the right to freedom of expression, speech, and press. . . . .Address sexual and gender violence” among other requests.

Additionally English Professor Kirstin Moana Thompson penned an op-ed decrying the president’s response, and she said the incident illustrated “that our campus needs to closely examine our own cultural attitudes around bodies and desire, gender and sexuality, and to engage with our students, straight, trans and queer: the World has changed, and it is time to wake up.”

Jonathan Choe, a gay Catholic student, supported the president’s response (but not Leigh’s removal of the papers), saying that he believed the values of “propriety” and “decency” should be upheld.  He called for greater dialogue on sexuality and gender issues on campus.

Yet, The Spectator also reported some students said that in addition to the university’s Jesuit social justice oriented mission and its proximity to Capitol Hill, images like the cover photo make the school appealing and ensure the promise of joining an inclusive community. Such was the case for Mina Gibbs, whose mother’s concern for her queer daughter attending a Catholic school subsided when she saw an advertisement for the university’s 2015 drag show. Gibbs, now a junior at SU and small events director of the Triangle Club, noted the sad irony in the recent events: “The entire reason [my mom] felt comfortable letting her queer daughter come here is now being attacked.”

Likewise, Hunter Adams, the featured student on the cover photo, had concerns about attending a university with religious affiliations. He found comfort when current students told him about the Triangle Club and the drag show. In SU’s gay community, he found the first opportunity to explore his gender and sexuality expression after being raised in a conservative neighborhood. He told the Spectator of the euphoria he got from performing drag in a safe space:  “The energy on the stage was so much. Everyone was so supportive in the crowd.”

Though both Sundborg and Leigh have apologized, the campus administration needs to work toward healing and reconciliation, as well as inclusion and equality.  If they don’t, the message that these incidents teach is that the LGBTQ+ community at SU is tolerated, but encouraged to stay out of sight to protect the rest of the community. A Catholic campus needs to do better than that.

Julia Basnage, New Ways Ministry, May 16, 2018

Related articles:

The Spectator: “Dear Sundborg:  Hands Off Queer Bodies”

Seattle Times: “‘Offended’ Seattle U professor admits taking copies of student newspaper after it published photo of performer in drag”


4 replies
  1. Brian Kneeland
    Brian Kneeland says:

    The Jesuits involved should be ashamed of themselves. I attended a Jesuit University (the University of Detroit) and learned not only tolerance and acceptance of who I am and of others but also the freedom of the press. If the school administration objects due to decency issues then they are also violating the freedom of the press.

    • Chardin
      Chardin says:

      This kind of attitude (or cover photo) does nothing to advance LGBT interests. And the outrage further serves to sap any authenticity at all. A reasonable person would see this as poor taste regardless of the context or gender of the subject in the photo. Leave the protected spaces and its no wonder the movement has a credibility problem. Not for cover photos but the defense of them.

  2. Patrick Riley
    Patrick Riley says:

    It appears the student newspaper needs faculty oversight. As a Catholic, Gay & married man with children & grandchildren, I support the drag show — in fact, I’m amazed & proud that SU has the insight to let it be — but do not believe the specific photo from the drag show should be on the cover of the student newspaper.

  3. Friends
    Friends says:

    Unfortunately, this is a conundrum which many generally liberal and tolerant Catholic colleges and universities come up against. It’s much more a question of public relations, rather than a question of moral probity. Even for a Jesuit university, I think this cover of the “Spectator” was simply “a bridge too far” — given the fact that it would be viewed by parents of students and prospective students, as well as by older and more conservative alumni, while they were visiting the campus. I certainly don’t regard the cover as a moral issue — personally I find it quite humorous and playful — but a whole lot of parents and older alumni would be offended by it. What if they had put a picture of a nude couple — with “pasties” over their sexy parts — on the cover? It would have provoked the very same reaction from older adults, though probably not from the vast majority of today’s students, who likely would have found it whimsical and playful. “Generation Gap” is the actual problem here.


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