A drag show at a Catholic university. It almost sounds like an oxymoron, but I promise — here at Seattle University–it’s real. From my slightly obstructed (all the way in the back) view, I witnessed my first ever school–sponsored drag show. With vivid memories of freshman orientation in the back of my mind, I was ready for a few catchy, slightly watered-down musical numbers (see “Welcome to Seattle University” put on by our enthusiastic orientation advisors). So when I was met with a surprising amount of authenticity (and yes, a fair share of ridiculously catchy pop music) I was more than pleasantly surprised.
Hosted by a pair of drag kings known as “The Kings”, the show was a glamorous combination of student and professional performers. Complete with audience participation in a drag race toward the end of the night, it was engaging to say the least. Along with the song and dance, many performers spoke about how the drag show offers them a sense of identity and community. As fun as the night was, it also serves as a safe space for students to truly be themselves on campus.
Unfortunately, scantily clad angels and devils stomping around the stage were not the only clash between religion and drag that night. In the previous year (while I was praising the university for its progressiveness) the school faced internal conflict regarding the drag show. As I was still a high school senior dreaming of the intellectual and cultural haven I imagined college to be, SU’s president, Father Sundborg called a picture taken from the drag show “indecent” and said it “offended all dignity and respect of sexuality and of persons of bodies”.
While this line of thinking isn’t wildly unusual for a 70-something-year-old Jesuit, something doesn’t sit right with me about this statement. Though generally “accepting” of the LGBT+ community, Father Sundborg made it clear that this powerful form of self-expression wasn’t truly welcome at SU. Yes, be who you are, but don’t be too visible, too loud, too in-my-face. More than that, he wasn’t talking about some abstract concept: this was a picture of a student at his school.
Although my night was full of lighthearted fun, this controversy reminded me of the important history behind drag. Years before being gay (let alone gay marriage) was legal, there was drag. In a world that told LGBT+ people their best bet was to stay hidden, drag gave people a way to be unapologetically themselves. In more recent years–though being gay is no longer illegal–there are still forms of homophobia we see
While this is an important sentiment at its core (we’re all just human, after all), this too, in a way, forces LGBT+ people into a box of what’s deemed acceptable. In order to be tolerated (not accepted, mind you, just tolerated) queer people are required to be quiet and small. Drag combats this head-on. You can be out, proud, whoever you want. Rather than conform to the narrow lines American society has drawn for queer people (white, cis, “respectable”), it created an art form that drew on individuality and flamboyant self-expression.
This year’s drag show encompassed years of history in one night. Underneath the dancing and singing, elaborate makeup, and high heels, there were undertones of liberating self-expression and a community that not only tolerated all people (the bare minimum, by the way) but respected and loved one another for their individualism. At a Jesuit university, this is the challenge we face. Though the school preaches messages of social justice, we struggle to push past the surface level tolerance in practice.
After last year, the fallout that is still present in my first year here at SU feels like the aftermath of a bad storm. After the initial disaster, students and staff alike wondered where to go from here. Surveying the damage, SU was forced to re-evaluate the structures that were clearly not as strong as we all thought. Rather than building our university on a foundation of social justice, we painted that message on the front door. There left a clear division–what the students need and what the staff has to offer. Seattle University–a school that prides itself on its mission of social justice–struggles in the day to day implementation of these practices. While the drag show itself was full of love and progress, the tension surrounding the event itself was evident.
Following the controversy of last year, I asked Father Sundborg about the 2019 drag show and he sent me this statement in response:
“I was pleased to attend and appreciated the invitation from students. The Drag Show is an important event on campus to many students who view it as an opportunity to create a sense of belonging and celebrate diversity and inclusion. I believe my attendance is a way to show support for LGBTQ students and their allies. This was my first time to attend so it was a learning experience. I appreciated, in particular, the number of students who expressed their gratitude to me for attending and what it meant to them for me to be there. I think Seattle U is ahead of many universities when it comes to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students, and my hope is that we will continue to be.”
Though this statement is not devoid of all issues, I think–more than anything–it represents an important cultural shift driven by the students. Far from the “indecent” comments of last year, Father Sundborg has adjusted his tone based on the outrage of students. LGBT+ students fought for their rights to exist in all forms, not just in the “polite” way dictated by our society. I doubt–in a short year’s time–Father Sundborg has completely shifted his beliefs surrounding the drag show, but he at least recognizes the value students place in it. In the past year–following the controversy–SU added an LGBT+ studies minor and made steps toward gender-neutral housing. While the administration struggles to find its role as a Jesuit university in Capitol Hill, the students push for necessary change. Rather than bowing down to the idea that “this is a Jesuit university”, students demanded an institution that accepts people in all forms. This seems like a small victory, but in the daunting war that is changing systemic homophobia, this is a battle won.