Duquesne University Reverses Course to Allow Gender Neutral Fashion Show

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Ceding to protests, Duquesne University administrators have backed off an initial decision to ban gender-neutral language and imagery from an upcoming campus fashion show.

“The Gender Neutral Fashion Show,” co-hosted by the campus’ Gender Forum and Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, will proceed this evening with “gender neutral” in its title and imagery.

The debate over this fashion show erupted when University leadership announced last month that organizers could not use such language and images because some people on campus had complained. In a public statement, administrators claimed they needed to ensure “promotional materials are not designed in a fashion that will unnecessarily offend others.” This issue was, administrators stated, related to the school’s Catholic identity. The Diocese of Pittsburgh had referred outside complaints to the University and expressed its concerns, according to spokesperson Ann Rodgers.

Pushback to the ban was strong and immediate, reported campus newspaper The Duquesne DukeSome twenty-five faculty members from the School of Education released a statement criticizing the ban and arguing the school’s Catholic identity very much supports the fashion show’s gender-neutral theme. They wrote:

” ‘We believe that censoring language and/or sexual identity is never the correct response within an academic environment; in fact, such actions are antithetical to the core of a university’s mission . . . In various Gospel verses, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for using their positions of leadership to manipulate and take advantage of the people rather than demonstrate love. In the Bible, Jesus disrupted the systems that were not tolerant and just.’ . . .

” ‘The Spiritans [members of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, the religious community of men which runs the campus] “walk with” people to gain a better understanding and appreciation of their lived experience. They do not judge; they do not colonize. Here, the university seems to be using their “power” to judge and control the language and being of others . . . Not only is this unhealthy for the morale of our students or faculty, but it seems to violate the very foundation of the University — one which espouses “ecumenical” principles that originally drew us to Duquesne.’ “

Other statements and letters to the administration were submitted by various Duquesne constituencies. Emma Shirey, who heads the Gender Forum, said these acts of resistance “signal the kind of multi-faceted support from faculty that is essential to creating a more welcoming environment for marginalized members of the Duquesne community.”

Alumni also expressed concerns about censorship as “just the latest example in the university’s recent history of discrimination against its LGBTQIA+ students,” Brenden O’Donnell and Jess Eagle wrote in an op-ed published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. They referenced an October 2 letter from 169-plus alumni to President Ken Gormley “expressing our concern about Duquesne’s ability to uphold Catholic intellectual traditions,” citing Pope Francis’ meeting with Fr. James Martin, SJ, and other Catholic colleges’ efforts to welcome LGBTQ students as evidence of what Duquesne should do.

The University administration now says it welcomes the Gender Neutral Fashion Show. Gabe Welsch, the Vice President for Marketing and Communications, said they appreciated those involved “who collaborated to resolve past miscommunications” and the event would “provide all in our community a chance to learn more about the diversity we are fortunate to have here at Duquesne.”

But, The Duquesne Duke reported, many students remain dissatisfied that the administration issued its ban on a gender-neutral theme in the first place, and widened their criticism to the school’s handling of LGBTQ issues, like its decision to introduce Chick-Fil-A on campus:

“The Executive Board of Kappa Delta Epsilon, Duquesne’s education fraternity, released a formal statement, as well. In it, the student organization criticizes the university’s mishandling of the Gender Neutral Fashion Show, as well as other campus LGBTQ+ events and issues. . .

” ‘We as students have seen an increase in divisive rhetoric and actions on our campus,” the statement said. ‘For example, some students reported hearing others say that they “would rather have Chick-Fil-A than gays,” whereas in terms of the fashion show, posters were damaged, graffitied or completely torn down.”

Kappa Delta Epsilon’s leadership urged University leadership “to radically change existing, antiquated policies and implement comprehensive, inclusive education policies that provide a safe space for anyone who may identify as part of a marginalized community.”

The event happening tonight first features an academic panel discussion on “Gender and Fashion in Historic Context” and then proceeds with a fashion show put on by student models. In the end, the University officials made the right decision to allow a gender-neutral theme to proceed. But students are correct that the controversy should have never happened based on both the need to support LGBTQ students and to preserve the academic freedom and intellectual inquiry. Each of these needs is deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition and essential to a thriving institution of higher education today.

This post is part of our “Campus Chronicles” series on Catholic higher education. You can read more stories by clicking “Campus Chronicles” in the Categories section to the right or by clicking here. For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to our blog in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 23, 2019

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