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Drag show and column attacking it spark controversy at John Carroll University — September 2018

University Heights, OH

A student at John Carroll University (JCU) published an opinion column in the school’s newspaper criticizing the annual drag show put on by an LGBTQ student organization. The column was criticized as hate speech by the organizers and other students, but not by the paper’s editor-in-chief.

Key Players

Declan Leary is a student at John Carroll University, a private Jesuit school southeast of Cleveland, Ohio, who writes a regular column in the Carroll News, the University’s student-run newspaper. He frequently expresses conservative views, using terms some find offensive.

LGBTQA+ Allies is a student organization at John Carroll University that supports students of all gender identities and sexual orientations.

Olivia Shackleton, editor-In-chief of the Carroll News, wrote two explanations of why she decided to publish Leary’s column about the drag show.

Further Details

On September 20, 2018, the Carroll News published columns by Declan Leary and Kathleen Mackey side-by-side, both discussing the school’s annual drag show, which had been going on for six years. Leary denounced the event with strong language and called on the university to return to its “Catholic character.” He referred to participants as “troubled men” who perpetuated a “culture of sexual perversion” that was “an assault on the dignity of the human person,” and he urged the university to renew its support for traditional gender norms and “to purge this place [JCU] of the evils which have invaded it in the names of tolerance and progress.” Conversely, Mackey’s column supported the drag show, describing it both as a celebration of free expression on campus and as an event where LGBTQ students could find community and acceptance.

In calling the event “sexual perversion,” Leary’s column equated gender identity and sexual orientation in a manner that many contest. Merriam-Webster defines “drag” as “entertainment in which performers dressed as members of the opposite sex caricature gender stereotypes through the use of often outrageous costumes and exaggerated mannerisms.” People who perform in drag shows are referred to as “drag queens,” and while they may be transgender or non-gender-binary, not all drag queens have a non-traditional gender identity. Furthermore, gender identity refers to whether a person identifies as male or female or chooses not to conform to either binary; this exists outside of their sexuality, which has to do with whom they are attracted to and choose to engage in sexual activity with. Due to this distinction, many members of the LGBTQ community, which refers to persons of both non-traditional gender and sexual identities, found Leary’s conflation of the two aspects problematic.

In letters to Editor-in-Chief Olivia Shackleton and to Leary, his piece was denounced as hate speech. Shackleton responded with two columns of her own, explaining that she viewed the matter as a Free Speech issue, and saying that “it is unfair and unConstitutional [sic] to demand that Declan’s rights to freedom of press and freedom of speech be stripped, just because you do not like what he has written.”

The university issued a statement to, saying: “John Carroll University fosters a campus community where differing points of view and experiences are valued as part of the learning process. (…) We encourage respectful dialogue and communication on these cultural and societal issues.” The university has a page on its website that explains its “Hate Free Policy,” which affirms its commitment to allowing different perspectives in campus conversations, and defines bias offenses as “any conduct (harassment or physical acts) directed at an individual(s) on the basis of age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or disability with intention to intimidate or injure an individual(s) physically, mentally, or emotionally.”


Student editor defends column, as university reaffirms commitment to dialogue

Shackleton explained that she valued an author’s ability to express himself and to begin a conversation on campus. The university posted an extensive list of articles on its website discussing Free Speech and offered students the opportunity to report bias incidents on campus.

External References

Drag Queens and Jesuits, The Carroll News

Don’t Be a Drag, The Carroll News

Carroll News Controversy, The Carroll News

Words Have Consequences, The Carroll News

JCU’s Hate Free Policy.

Free Speech or Hate Speech? Resources Provided on JCU website

John Carroll University student column argues against drag show, incites free speech debate,


Prepared by Gustav Honl-Stuenkel ‘20

Date uploaded to tracker: November 8, 2018