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