Students protesting annual drag show at Catholic university threatened with violence

loyola university chicago A drag performer dresses up as a Catholic religious sister and dances provocatively on stage while wearing a gay pride flag. | rYN/YouTube Nov 8, 2018

A small group of students who protested an annual drag show at the Catholic Loyola University Chicago told CNA that a group of counterprotesters destroyed their signs, disparaged their faith, and later threatened them with violence on social media. 

Rising juniors Emily Torres and Matthew McKenna resorted to protesting the April 14 event, which has been held on campus since at least 2018, after school administrators refused to accede to their requests that the event be canceled. The students had told officials they believed the drag show promotes values in contradiction with Catholic teaching.

According to their account, when the two students staged a protest outside of the event held at the university’s Mullady Theater, a crowd of counterprotesters surrounded them and ripped up their signs. 

Among the handwritten signs were two that read “Loyola pays drag queens to blaspheme” and “Drag shows drag down female dignity.”

In an audio recording obtained by CNA, one student in the crowd screams: “I hate Catholic people.” A roar of cheers can be heard in response.

The event, called “Drag Race,” was sponsored by the university-recognized LGBT club “Rainbow Connection” and the Department of Programming, the student group responsible for organizing events funded by the Jesuit university.

A description of the event on the Loyola University Chicago website reads: “Join Rainbow Connection and DOP for a night of memorable performances from both professional queens and student performers alike!”

A petition against the drag show

Torres and McKenna have sought to make their objections to the school-sponsored drag show known to administrators since their freshman year, when they started a petition drive against the event. 

“The Drag Show event hosted by the Loyola student club ‘Rainbow Connection’ is contrary to Loyola’s Catholic values and mission statements,” the petition read. 

Calling the drag show “offensive” and “repugnant” to a woman’s dignity, the petition, which garnered 38 signatures, said that it “falsely supposes true femininity lies in overtly sexual and provocative clothing and dancing.”

Rainbow Connection, which describes itself as “a safe space that is focused on queer/trans liberation and intersectionality,” is a “Sponsored Student Organization” that receives funding from the university. 

Threats on social media

Torres and McKenna provided CNA with screenshots showing the threats of violence they received on social media after the protest of the drag show on April 14. 

“Everybody make fun of these bigots…F***** nerds” one social media post read.

“Eggs and tomatoes are too soft, if they are still out there, y’all should start throwing bricks at them!!” another post said.

The two said they were insulted with profanities while protesting their freshman year as well.

More in US

No help from university administrators

In response to a request for comment from CNA, Matt McDermott, associate director of external communications with Loyola University Chicago, issued a statement saying that the university “does not condone actions that disrespect the rights of others.” 

“Loyola University Chicago is a diverse community that promotes mutual respect, student safety, and learning. As a Jesuit, Catholic university, we advocate civil discourse and hearty debate and strongly believe it advances education, engagement, and understanding,” the statement said. Students are expected to adhere to “community standards and respect all members of the university community,” he said.

Torres and McKenna told CNA they did not file a complaint with administrators over the threats they had received after their protest because, they said, based on their experiences, they didn’t think the school would do anything. 

When Torres and McKenna arrived at the school for their freshman year in 2021 and heard there was a drag show being held, they began gathering signatures for the petition to stop the performance and went to the school administration.

Torres said after several unsuccessful attempts to meet with a school official to express their concerns, she and McKenna were granted a meeting with Samantha Maher Sheahan, the associate dean of students.

Sheahan told Torres: “This university does not teach the Catholic faith is true,” according to both the students’ accounts. 

(Story continues below)

Sheahan also allegedly said that Title IX laws prohibit the school from stopping the drag show because the school would lose federal funding.

According to the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, “Title IX does not apply to an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”

“Title IX has religious exemptions, and there are public schools that have canceled their drag shows. So it’s really just silly,” McKenna said.

CNA reached out to Sheahan for comment, but McDermott said that he was responding on behalf of her and any other members of the university contacted for comment.

2018 drag show featured man dressed as nun

The following academic year, in the fall of 2022, Torres and McKenna met with Father Richard Salmi, SJ, the school’s associate vice president for mission integration, to express their concerns about the drag show but were again disappointed with the result.

At the meeting, the students said they told Salmi that they had discovered that a drag show was held on campus in 2018, three years before the two arrived on campus, in which one of the performers dressed up as a Catholic religious sister and danced provocatively on stage while wearing a gay pride flag.

That performance can be seen here. It’s unclear if the performer was a student or not. 

According to the students, Salmi said he didn’t think a drag queen wearing religious garb was appropriate but said that drag shows could be done “in good taste.” 

Salmi recommended Torres and McKenna meet with the LGBT student group, Rainbow Connection, to engage in a dialogue about their concerns. According to the students, the group wasn’t open to having a conversation. CNA reached out to Rainbow Connection for comment but did not receive a response.

The two told CNA they appreciated that Salmi tried to help but decided to protest the club’s most recent drag show on April 14 because they felt they weren’t getting anywhere with the administration.

CNA reached out to Salmi for comment, but again, McDermott said he was responding on behalf any other members of the university contacted for comment.

Vow to protest next year’s drag show

Both students told CNA if the school hosts the drag show next year, they plan to protest it again.

McKenna, who chose Loyola University Chicago because it is a Catholic college, said he is speaking out because the drag show doesn’t align with the university’s Catholic mission and degrades women.

Torres, who converted to the Catholic faith in her senior year of high school, chose the school so she could be immersed in a Catholic environment that would sustain her newly professed faith, and because of its neuroscience program.

Despite the school’s decision to host the drag show, Torres and McKenna said their faith has only strengthened.

“Although the lack of faith at this school can make it easy to despair, I’ve come to realize that many of the saints lived in environments that were hostile towards the faith,” she said.

“I think it’s strengthened my faith insofar as it’s obligated me to be able to defend the relevant aspects of it. It also confirms many of the things said by Christ about the faith being hated by many and not practiced by most,” he said.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.