JCU dragged into controversy

October 10th, 2013

At 9 p.m. last Thursday night, two rallies for change, advocacy and contemplation were held at John Carroll University. Although these calls for action were merely a few feet apart, their messages were dissenting. The drag show: set inside the Dolan Center for Science and Technology, adorned with sequins, music and a crowd of people cheering for the performers onstage. The other: a silent protest. A solitary Catholic student on his knees for the duration of the show, murmuring the phrase, “For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and the whole world.” The phrase: an excerpt from the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The student: senior Devan Jacobson.

Both expressions of belief were held simultaneously. Neither disturbed the other. Peace was present, yet heated debate and controversy stirred beneath the surface. On the one side was a student believing that the performance directly violated the Catechism of the Catholic Church and regretting his decision to attend JCU because of such controversial programming. On the other side was a group of students with the intention of not only entertaining the campus, but also promoting a sense of awareness and pride held by the LGBTQ community.

According to Salomon Rodezno, program coordinator for the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, many at the University were supportive, and even excited, when students proposed to organize a professional drag show.

“It’s entertainment. It’s a show. I thought it would be great for students to see that,” he said. “There’s a long history of drag that starts back with Shakespeare. So, just tapping into that, people will go home and think, ‘Well, we’ve really been around drag queens all of our lives.’ A piece of what we do in the center is talk about gender – and drag queens play with gender. And we play with gender every day by the way we dress up. We decide if we wear pants, if we wear skirts, determining the level of perceived masculinity and femininity. Drag plays with this.”

Students attending the drag show, such as sophomore Warren Serrani, also expressed gratitude towards the co-sponsorship of SUPB and Allies for bringing four professional drag queens to campus.

“I’m excited for the campus of John Carroll University to be able to see and learn more about the LGBT community,” said Serrani. “Not only about drag, but also what the community is about – and why we do this.”

Other students, such as junior Jackie Uhlik, agreed bringing the show to JCU served as an educational experience for the community.

“Personally, I think it’s great that they brought a drag show to a Jesuit school,” Uhlik said, while watching the drag queens perform on stage. “It really opens people’s minds. This gives those who are close-minded a chance to see these people aren’t a lot different from everyone else.”

However, the controversy of bringing a LGBTQ program to a Jesuit university looms. In the early 2000s, Allies launched a drag show featuring both students and local performers. The drag show, hosted in the Underground, continued once every other year – until 2009. That year, the show was postponed, and ultimately canceled, due to the uncertainty of whether or not it clearly articulated an educational purpose and possibly violated the core values of the University.

Extensive research was completed in anticipation of this year’s drag show. The CSDI investigated drag shows hosted at other Jesuit universities. According to Rodezno, Georgetown University, Santa Clara University and Boston College have organized drag shows. However, they referred to the events as “gender benders” or “open mic nights,” shouldering the fear that labeling the performances as drag shows may have reflected negatively on their universities.

When Rodezno began working at JCU three years ago, a group of students approached him to reinstate a drag show.  Administration denied their proposal. Rodezno speculated that a variety of factors influenced this decision.

“We have a lot of folks who are either vice presidents or have donated to the University – and they’re very conservative,” said Rodezno. “So, having a controversial program could jeopardize how they give to the University. Even though we don’t get much of an explanation, I believe it lies with the powerful alumni. If we put on controversial programming, they may not donate. It’s high stakes.”

However, the first-ever SUPB-sponsored drag show made JCU history – paying professional drag queens with student dollars.

Jacobson, the praying protester, was unsettled by how the student dollars were spent.

“There’s about four years of patient silence which is welling up within me, in which I have witnessed events taking place at John Carroll University which blatantly contravene infallibly defined Catholic teaching,” he said. “But, I have remained prayerfully silent both in the hope that the University would come to its senses and return to its founding ideals, and also as a consequence of having been intimidated into silence and on the margins of campus life by an academic environment which seems to nurture and extol every other fashionable current of thought, except Catholic orthodoxy, which should have pride of place in a Catholic university, according to Blessed John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution on the role of Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” he said.

Theology professor and writer-in-residence

the Rev. Donald Cozzens, who teaches a course on Christian sexuality and was present at the event, believes that the issue at stake is not the controversy of whether Catholicism and homosexuality mesh.

“There’s a phenomenon in culture that is referred to as ‘camp,’” said Cozzens. “Camp is kind of an exaggerated way of dressing, acting and behaving that is associated with sometimes artists, writers and also the gay and lesbian community. I thought, as I watched the drag show, that this was a classic example of camp. The question for me is, what’s behind someone behaving in a way we can describe as camp?”

Jacobson questioned the priests’ attendance at the show and suggested that they may have committed a sinful act by choosing to make an appearance at the event.

“In the Catechism, there is a sin called scandal, and it concerns whether or not someone is tempted to commit sin by what he observes in the behavior of another person,” he said. “For instance, if I am witnessed that night entering a strip club by another Catholic person, and that Catholic person thinks, ‘well, it’s okay for Catholics to go to strip clubs,’ I’ve just committed the sin of scandal by making them think that it was okay. There are concerns about that when priests are present at events like that.”

The Rev. Jayme Stayer, S.J. who was also present at the drag show, took offense to Jacobson’s accusation.

“I’m scandalized by the homophobia implicit in [Jacobson’s] question,” said Stayer. “The identity of homosexuality, as the Catholic Catechism makes abundantly clear, is not a sin. To assume LGBTQ persons or their allies are sinful because of their identity is both naïve and uncharitable.”

Although Stayer and Cozzens agree that the Catholic church is accepting of homosexuality, they offered contrasting views of the performance.

“I thought the drag show was tame, sober and rather sweet,” Stayer said. “What was considered outrageous in the 1970s and ’80s has become so domesticated that folks hardly raise an eyebrow nowadays. I attended the show because as Cardinal Timothy Dolan has said, we need to make the church more welcoming for LGBTQ persons. If Pope Francis can say, ‘Who am I to judge?,’ then that’s a good enough model for me.”

Cozzens reasoned that the drag show was a method of making the LGBTQ community’s presence known.

“Perhaps the LGBTQ community felt that one of the ways to raise people’s consciousness is through camp,” Cozzens said. “Because it’s almost as if this over-the-top behavior is a way of saying, ‘We’re here, get used to us and we no longer feel like we are second-class citizens because of our orientation.’”

Cozzens and Jacobson both agree that Catholicism condemns promiscuity – both for homosexuals and heterosexuals.

“If the young man was protesting against decadent behavior, I’m with him,” Cozzens said. “We all know we can find promiscuous, decadent behavior among heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. And perhaps [Jacobson] understood the drag show as a culture phenomenon that’s encouraging promiscuity. It seems pretty sincere to spend around three hours on his knees praying.”

This promiscuous behavior is exactly what Jacobson believed what was being encouraged last Thursday night.

“Catholicism condemns certain decadent lifestyles, which I believe were celebrated at Thursday’s drag show,” said Jacobson.

Although Cozzens is open to Jacobson’s viewpoint, he believes that the interests of the promoters of the show in advocating awareness were well-intentioned and even noble.

“We have a LGBTQ community here,” Cozzens said. “They are a minority. They are good, intelligent and sincere people. Being gay is not something we choose; it’s no more an issue than of being straight. And that is very much in keeping with the Catholic church.”

Jacobson, however, says he is confused about the idea of promoting awareness of the LGBTQ community.

“I have nothing against making the campus of John Carroll friendly, welcoming and hospitable to the gay students,” said Jacobson. “In fact, if that’s what the business of the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion is, as far as I’m concerned, sign me up. I want to help. But I am a strict Catholic and I do insist on orthodoxy and adherence to teachings. I’m all about acceptance and compassion for LGBTQ persons. But beyond that, I don’t know what our obligation to LGBTQ people is.”

As the hours ticked by on Thursday night, Jacobson stood his ground – or rather knelt on the ground, even as rain poured down around him. Crowds of students passed by going in and out of the building. Yet, as instructed by Campus Safety Services, Jacobson remained outside the event, quiet and undisruptive. Although he wanted to carry a sign inside reading, “Catholic students for a Catholic education” to express his belief that he was misled about JCU’s Catholic ideals when he applied to the University, he was denied the opportunity to protest in such a way. Instead, he complied to a peaceful protest.

“I think that sometimes non-Catholics fail to remember that on Catholic campuses, they’re guests, and it puts us in an unfair position when Catholic administrators are forced to recognize certain displays which their faith tells them is inappropriate,” said Jacobson.

Peace radiated from both sides of the controversy. At one point, Rodezno stepped outside to check on Jacobson and offer him water and food, in keeping with the idea of the center’s policy of inclusiveness.

Inside the event, many reacted to Jacobson’s protest outside, including the drag queens themselves. When Jacobson’s protest was brought to their attention after the show, the performers appeared taken back, reacting with a mixture of dejection and empathy.

Sonshine La Ray immediately spouted out a fiery, yet humorous, initial response.

“Let me get my spear,” she said, referring to the prop she carried during the show.

She then considered people’s inevitable fear of the unknown when walking into an unfamiliar situation.

“If you see something that you think is going to be painful, you step on it,” said La Ray. “It makes sense, because you don’t know what it’s going to cause. There’s a symptom and a side effect to everything. Do I disagree with [Jacobson] praying? Absolutely not. Have at it. Knock those knees until they turn purple, girl. The thing is, more than likely, if he actually had a conversation with us and came in here and was respectful to us to know what we did, he would actually probably be a little more enlightened.”

La Ray also pointed out that Jacobson could have opted to pray in the privacy of his home rather than making his demonstration a public display.

“You didn’t have to come and make a stand,” she said. “God doesn’t need you to make a stand.”

Erica Martinez, another drag queen, suggested that Jacobson direct his prayers toward other issues.

“Why don’t you pray to make this country more safe for people to get along and stop the wars and the fighting?,” Martinez said. “You know what, I have to answer to God. Whether I’m right, wrong, whatever, I have to answer. Nobody has to answer but me. So I pray for him.”

Maya Tack, the fourth drag queen, shared similar sentiments.

“There are so many more important, serious things to be praying about than some drag queens entertaining college kids,” she said. “So, God bless him.”

Word of Jacobson’s prayerful protest spread across campus, harvesting both positive and negative reactions. However, most students responded in a peaceful, respectful manner – even if their viewpoints clashed.

Serrani respected Jacobson’s courage to protest that night, but believes there are more pertinent issues in the world to pray about.

“I agree with Erica and Sonshine – pray for more acceptance in our world and don’t be so quick to hate and judge,” he said.

The two seemingly different calls for action each garnered mixed reactions, and sparked heated controversy on campus.

“You have the right and power to organize and demonstrate on campus – that’s the neat thing about John Carroll,” said Rodezno. “It’s allowed.”

He added that he hopes the drag queens inspired people to chase after their dreams, pursue their ambitions and hold steadfast to their beliefs.

“That’s what we want our students to take away from [the drag show],” he said. “You can go out there and do what you want to, whether it’s becoming doctors or news anchors. This was an opportunity to show people who have made it,” – controversy and all.