John Carroll University officials have cancelled the college’s annual LGBTQ drag show, citing division on campus that likely stems from a 2018 dispute in the campus newspaper.
When students returned to the Cleveland, Ohio, campus this fall, they were informed by university president Michael Johnson that the drag show, which has been performed annually since 2013, was being cancelled because it was deemed divisive.
Supporters of the drag show have launched an online petition that claims Johnson also told student leaders that he came to his decision after conversations with “seminarians, Jesuits, and the Catholic Bishop of Cleveland.” A John Carroll University (JCU) spokesperson explained the decision, per Cleveland.com:
” ‘We are working with our students on new and more extensive programming that will promote the expression, appreciation and understanding of the many identities represented at John Carroll University. We are also engaging with community partners, alumni, and experts to advance the understanding of different points of view related to sexuality, faith, inclusion and respect.’ “
Many members in the John Carroll community have responded critically to the cancellation. Eddie Jenkins, who heads the Student Union Programming Board, told Fox 8 Cleveland that while he respected the administration’s decision, the drag show was “one of our more popular events” on campus each year. He commented, “Especially as the first openly gay president of the programming board, I think it’s something that is very important to the community.”
Leah VanDine, a senior who is the student government’s vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion, reacted more strongly against the cancellation, reported Cleveland.com:
“VanDine said canceling the show does not show a neutral position on the controversy from JCU’s administration and that it takes away one of the campus’s long-standing major cultural events. The show began in 2013.
” ‘Having that taken away from us is so diminishing. It makes us feel … like we’re not welcome on campus. All of these other organizations are allowed to put on whatever fun events they want and no one gets harassed for it. No one gets an op-ed written about it.’ . . .
“VanDine said there was a requirement for the shows which shared information about drag and the LGBT community. Unlike other educational events, though, the show creates a space where LGBT students can celebrate their identities and students new to the drag community can just have fun, she said.”
The dispute about the drag show began back in October 2018, when The Carroll News, the student newspaper published an op-ed by one of its editors, Declan Leary, that targeted the drag show as “a flagrant celebration of sexual perversity.” Leary suggested at the time that John Carroll was on a “descent into heathenry and heresy” and that President Johnson should “purge this place of the evils which have invaded it in the names of tolerance and progress.” Against pushback from the school community, particularly LGBTQ students, the newspaper’s editors defended the column as protected free speech. The paper also published a number of letters to the editors and responses targeting Leary’s op-ed.
Students, joined by supportive alumni, are planning to protest Johnson’s cancellation. They are also, according to VanDine, figuring out how the drag queens scheduled to perform at the show could still participate in the campus’ upcoming diversity week. Besides the online petition, there is a crowdfunding effort (here) to organize a drag show off campus.
This cancellation in Cleveland raises many questions. Is there truly division at John Carroll University when it comes to the drag show, one of the most well attended campus events each year? Or has President Johnson bowed to a student writer’s minority opinion, then using the idea of a divided campus as cover? And did Cleveland’s Bishop Nelson Perez or any Jesuit officials have a role in the decision, as the student petition claims? In short, what really happened regarding the JCU drag show and why is it that LGBTQ students have to pay the price?
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 6, 2019