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Don’t slam the door on drag

| Friday, November 3, 2023

“You f****t, get—get out of my house,” my grandfather Carl, a tall redneck built like an aircraft carrier, bellowed in his deep stuttering voice. He had just found the terrible truth: His son is gay.

These words fluttered out of my grandfather’s thick pursed lips as he slammed the giant oak door behind my dad. The hinges creaked, the door croaked and, in the silence of a slammed door, the grandfather clock kept ticking. 

My dad was 14. His community, network of support and faith were obliterated in an instant. By the time he reached his forties, deep in his bones, he carried that rejection. By my sixth birthday, he was severely addicted to methamphetamine; by my eighth, he was gone from my life. The trauma from that slammed door was passed down and magnified as I lost my father.

Today, we’re at risk of passing the baton of trauma to members of our Notre Dame family. 

Today, the University of Notre Dame’s departments of film, television, and theatre; music and American studies; the College of Arts and Letters Initiative on Race and Resilience, the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts and the Gender Studies Program are all sponsoring a drag show. 

Today, the ugly serpent of bigotry has reared its head. In anticipation of the event, the organizing departments have received over 1,200 emails with some of the most vile pond-scum notes imaginable threatening their lives, their departments and the pursuit of academic freedom. Instead of engaging in productive conversation, these “activists” have attempted to dox students and faculty, buy up the tickets to prevent people from attending the event and threaten people’s safety to the point that the event has stopped allowing people to get tickets. 

In a bad-faith attempt to fracture LGBTQ+ and women’s rights movements, anti-gay activists have labeled this drag show as a mockery of femininity — something that has no historical backing. 

Drag has long been a type of art that has brought together communities. It exaggerates gender in an attempt to subvert and challenge people’s understanding of gender. The drag queen and host Ru Paul of Ru Paul’s Drag Race stated “Gay men don’t do drag to mock women, we do drag to mock the cultural concept of identity. If you don’t get irony, you don’t get drag.” 

Some have disgustingly attempted to conflate drag shows to blackface. Catholic Vote attacked Fr. Jenkins’ support of the event, claiming “We assume this means Notre Dame’s administration, being fine with the woman-face mockery that is drag, will also be fine with black-face vaudeville and minstrel shows. Not a great way to go out.” Conflating drag with blackface not only ignores the history of drag but of blackface and the marginalization of communities of color.

My godmother, in her thick rural accent, always tells me “If you’re not willing to have a conversation or hear arguments from those different from you, then maybe your point of view is bad.” 

Instead of actually desiring any type of conversation or exposure to new evidence, Country Club Catholics have decided to prove every stereotype of Catholicism right. Instead of Notre Dame shining as a beacon of light where individuals gain the skills to defend teachings or ideas, we see fascist forces unable to cope with opinions different than their own. 

After I lost my dad at eight and my mom at 12, faith saved my life. God, prayer and the Church became a refugee of love, acceptance and grace — a place where freedom came through an understanding of mutual brokenness and a desire to build a community around redemption.  

My early Catechism classes featured weekly trips to the homeless shelter. After mass, potlucks were full of embracing and feeding one another. The parables and stories imbued us with the knowledge of past generations. I found faith as the place and home of justice. 

Reading the Bible, I fell in love with the man-character of Jesus who ate, walked and sat with the marginalized. The tax collectors, prostitutes and the poor were not some afterthought but were central to how he lived the Gospel. To Jesus, it wasn’t enough to just not be one of the stone throwers, he required the active prevention of stones from being cast. 

To be completely and totally honest, I have not always understood drag as an art form or the history behind it. I have not always been comfortable with the subversion of gender and have struggled with such performances in the ways they interact with Church teachings on gender. 

But I have changed my opinion and thoughts through exposure to new evidence which, fundamentally, is what this moral panic is about: right-wing activists want to constrict our empathy for one another through the denial of new evidence. 

Explaining my love and adoration for the Catholic faith is difficult to explain to peers in the LGBTQ+ community. So often they see the wickedness of a faith weaponized against them. They see a Catholic Church unwilling to participate in dialogue, unwilling to hear the cries of the marginalized or unwilling to let them feel comfortable in their own skin.

To be fair, there are real questions around topics like the impact of early and adolescent gender-affirming care, transgender participation in athletics and gender and drag within the Catholic Church. However, as long as those conversations are done in bad faith, in dehumanizing language or in the form of 1,200 emails full of death threats, there is simply no space to tackle those legitimate unanswered questions.

All around Notre Dame, I see so much beautific kindness: people who would drop anything to help you with a flat tire, who would pick up your books when you drop them or take the time to have a conversation with you about your day in the checkout line. Kindness like that is hard to come by in my hometown of Seattle. However, brittle cruelty undergirds that beautific kindness is a brittle cruelty. For an LGBTQ+ student, many of those same people who would do anything to help you, fight against your very right to exist.

Notre Dame, we have a choice. We may not be my grandfather, pursing his lips and slamming the door. Worse, we can act as the hinges on the door that lets conservative activists slam the door on our siblings and family members. Or we can walk in the example of Jesus, open the door and embrace our community.

Dane Sherman is a junior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, peace studies, philosophy, and gender studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS wants to chat and can be reached at @danesherm on twitter or [email protected].

Correction: In a previous version of this column, the columnist claimed the departments at the University of Notre Dame who organized the drag show received 12,000 emails in opposition to the event. This is incorrect. The departments have received 1,200 emails. The Observer formally regrets this error. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Dane Sherman

Dane Sherman is a first year Philosophy major from Seattle, Washington.

Contact Dane