Students at a Catholic college in Montana rallied in support of two campus groups after administrative pressure forced a drag show to be canceled.
Carroll College’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) and Feminists Advocating Equality (FAE) organized the rally at the school in Helena, the state capital. Madison Fernandez, co-president of FAE, characterized the purpose of the drag performance as a vehicle of “love and support” for the college’s LGBTQ community.
In an interview with the Independent Record, Fernandez stated that the GSA canceled the drag show because they were unable to “preserve the integrity of the event” after receiving a list of restrictions from the school’s administration. Although the contents of this list have not been shared publicly, students stated that it included a dress code. Attempts to reach a compromise through a meeting with President John Crech were unsuccessful, though a follow up meeting was scheduled for yesterday.
The Independent Record reported further about reactions on campus to the rally and cancellation:
“Chato Hazelbaker, vice president of enrollment management and marketing at Carroll, said he was impressed with the students and their thoughtfulness throughout the rally.
“‘The students were articulate in their responses and passionate about creating a great community here at Carroll,’ Hazelbaker said.
“According to Hazelbaker, the college shares a goal with the organizers of creating a positive and affirming environment for all of its students. . .
“During Tuesday’s rally, student body President Emma Nylin read aloud a letter from a Carroll College alum who wrote that the school has a long history of not fully supporting its gay students. The letter drew attention to a 2001 attack on a gay student on Carroll’s campus.”
Carroll College alum Shawn Reagor, who is a staff member at the Montana Human Rights Network, which works to create pluralism, justice, and equality in the state’s communities, emphasized that he was welcomed and supported as a student when he matriculated at Carroll. Reagor qualified the administration’s support, however, by highlighting that Carroll College only supports its LGBTQ population when they conform to normative patterns of behavior, appearance, and “aren’t doing anything divisive.” Reagor also stressed that his hope and prayer for Carroll is to have a “deep conversation and look into the history of drag and what it means for the LGBTQ community.”
Miriam Jensen, president of Carroll’s GSA, who comes from a religious background, concluded at the rally, summarizing the frustrations of the school’s LGBTQ students:
“[We are] ‘sickened by the actions of those who prevented us from holding an event supporting the LGBTQ+ community…There is a stark difference between tolerance and acceptance…The LGBTQ+ community on this campus will not be silent.'”
Jensen’s concluding remarks pinpoint an important distinction between tolerance and acceptance. Caroll College’s struggle to nurture its LGBTQ population is a reflection of the challenge that Catholic universities and colleges face to holistically embrace their LGBTQ students. A required dress code for a drag show that seeks to explore the expression of gender diversity, identity, and the performance of blurring gender norms completely defeats the purpose of holding the event. It also signifies, as Caroll’s LGBTQ community have expressed, that this segment of the student population can only function and flourish when they conform to rigid gender norms.
Nevertheless, it is promising that Carroll College has such a strong group of LGBTQ leaders, many of whom are committed to engaging a restrictive administrative environment in furtherance of engendering a socially conscious and just space for all.
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.
—Brian William Kaufman, New Ways Ministry, March 5, 2020