The University of San Diego (USD), a Catholic campus in Southern California, hosted an LGBT-centered social event, which, once again, critics claim undermine the school’s Catholic identity. But, as one theologian notes, it is precisely by offering events which celebrate sexual and gender diversity that the church’s educational mission is fostered.
An event at USD entitled “Celebration of Gender Expression: Supreme Drag Superstar IV” was held last week as part of a seven-day program focused on Sexual Assault Awareness. While intended to be enjoyable, the program’s description points to the educational value as well:
“Transgender & Transsexual? Gender expression & gender identity? What do these have to do with Sexual Assault Awareness Week? Statistics show that the Trans Community is at a drastically higher risk for sexual and relationship violence. Learn more about this important issue.”
This is the drag show’s fourth year and, as usual, it is drawing criticism from some conservatives. USD administrators, however, support the program. Last year, an appeal by these critics to the Vatican was dismissed.
USD is not the only Catholic college hosting LGBT-focused social events. Drag shows have been held at Seattle University and Loyola University Chicago, while other schools hold rainbow proms like Santa Clara University and Gonzaga University. Kristen Grewe of Santa Clara, who coordinates their Rainbow Prom, explained the significance of such events to their campus newspaper:
” ‘The goal is a big celebration of the LGBTQ community…Whether that’s those individuals celebrating themselves, allies celebrating that they exist or just celebrating our efforts to try and make Santa Clara more visibly accepting, we want to give people the opportunity they may not have gotten in high school.’
” ‘We decide with this event what we want to say to the community…We focus on queer empowerment, queer history, the queer movement and what it means to be queer on this campus and in the world.’ “
The stakes for trans* students on Catholic campuses are especially high, enough so that USD theology professor Emily Reimer-Barry reflected on the drag show as a “matter of life and death.” Writing at Catholic Moral Theology, Reimer-Barry discussed the high profile suicides of transgender teens Taylor Alesana and Leelah Alcorn before asking two very relevant questions:
“What responsibility do I have as a cisgender Catholic when I learn of stories like Taylor’s or Leelah’s? How can my faith tradition work to make the world safer and more just for all people, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation? These questions take on new urgency each April as my school prepares to host the drag show, an annual event sponsored by PRIDE.”
Noting critics, Reimer-Barry affirms the drag show at the intersection of quality theology and good pastoral care. She writes, in partial response to Alcorn’s famous request to “fix society”:
“What does it mean to fix society? What can the Catholic community do? At the very minimum, we should name bullying as wrong. Second, our schools should be places where questioning and transitioning teens feel safe to explore their own identities and to dress in the way that feels right to them. We should have support groups and counseling services for students in crisis, and encourage students to recognize the signs of depression and the warning signs for suicide. Often peers are the first to know when someone needs help. Our schools should be places not of shame or microaggressions but of hope, support, and love. And when an adult has the opportunity to discuss sexual behavior with a teen we should encourage self-care and responsibility. We can foster open discussion of sensitive issues and encourage students to keep asking questions. And as people of faith we should help students to see that God loves them, no matter what, and that each person is precious in the eyes of God.”
Furthermore, the drag show and similar events celebrating LGBTQ communities helps the church’s theological reflection. Last year, Reimer-Barry noted that the annual show is a moment for encounter:
“But it must be said that Catholic teachings are part of a dynamic faith tradition that must learn from new data as it is presented. The best theologians of the tradition—including those who shaped the above teachings—did so as people in particular historical-cultural contexts. As a tradition that has developed over time, Catholicism must engage the latest research in sociology, psychology, biology, and the rest of the sciences. And there is still so much we do not understand about our sexuality…So we must be careful not to overstep our claims when we discuss ‘church teaching on gender ideology.'”
Finally, Reimer-Barry offered insights broadly applicable for our church in how questions of sexuality and gender identity are approached:
“I believe that I have a responsibility to listen and learn from people whose life experiences are different than mine…I belong to a pilgrim Church, a Church with the doors open, a Church called to transform the darkness of the world by the light of Christ. I am proud to work in a Catholic university that hosts a drag show as a way to raise awareness about gender diversity. While the drag show will not ‘fix society,’ it represents one small step towards a more inclusive, intellectually rigorous, and joyful approach to the complexity of human experiences of sexuality.”
In these closing words, the goodness and, indeed, necessity of drag shows, rainbow proms, and other social events that open up affirming and inclusive spaces in Catholic education becomes readily apparent. Caring for students in their differences, expanding the perspectives of all in the community, cultivating shared understandings through dialogue, and celebrating the goodness of God’s creative power found in human diversity are all very Christian values. Catholic colleges and universities, rather than weakening their Catholic identity, strengthen it tenfold by building rainbow bridges over their campuses.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry