The photo of the Seattle University student performing at a drag show in a low-cut, sparkly leotard was well lit and captured the performer mid-pose.
The editors of the university’s student newspaper The Spectator say it’s a good photo, one that they don’t regret putting on the cover of last week’s edition.
That puts them at odds with the university’s president, who called the photo “obscene,” and at least one professor, who admitted to removing every copy of the newspaper from the stands at three separate locations on the campus.
“At the time we didn’t even discuss or imagine that the photo would be problematic to anyone who saw it,” said Nick Turner, editor-in-chief of The Spectator and a senior journalism major. “Our first line of thinking was that it was a good photo.”
The photo is from an annual drag show hosted earlier this month by the university’s Triangle Club, an organization that provides resources to the LGBTQA community. Shortly after the edition hit the news stands, staff members received an email from University President Father Stephen Sundborg criticizing the photo.
In a Spectator interview, he said he was “very, very embarrassed and ashamed,” and described the photo as “indecent.”
“I thought it offended all dignity and respect of sexuality and of persons of bodies,” he said in the interview. “I think it was a mistake on the part of the editorial staff to put that on the cover. I was offended by it … Anybody who would see that who has a sense of propriety would find that offensive.”
Sundborg said he allowed the drag show, even though many other Jesuit-Catholic universities wouldn’t. But showing that “indecent pose,” was taking it too far, he said.
The staff members said they were surprised at that reaction, in part because of Seattle University’s focus on social justice issues. Students also cited the university’s location near Capitol Hill, a neighborhood that has historically been the center of LGBTQA culture and activism. “There’s rainbow crosswalks within minutes of our campus,” said Tess Riski, a senior journalism major and The Spectator’s news and investigative editor.
“It’s an issue on many levels,” she said. “The censorship aspect, and you have commentary from the university president and professor regarding the LGBTQ community. We weren’t expecting any of that censorship to happen, we weren’t expecting that reaction. To us it seemed like it was a photo of a student at a drag show and nothing more than that.”
Riski was one of the staff members who noticed the empty newsstands while she was walking on campus soon after the newspapers were distributed. Riski jokes now that that was their cue, because they never totally run out of newspapers.
“The stands were empty, which is rare, so we put two-and-two together,” she said. “We realized someone may have taken these intentionally.”
They went to the university’s public-safety department and asked if they had any surveillance footage. The department confirmed they had footage of someone taking entire stacks from the newsstand at three separate buildings. But they weren’t told who it was.
Later that day, they received an email from Father David Leigh, an English professor, who said he had taken the copies from the Bellarmine and Pigott buildings and the library. Students and faculty members had already taken many of the copies, he wrote, but he took the rest.
He wrote that he was concerned about the arrival of new students and their families as part of Accepted Students Decision Day.
“I was offended by a recent edition of The Spectator, whose cover contained what I considered an inappropriate, risqué photograph,” he wrote. “ … I deeply regret this action and have no further comments.”
With a looming deadline on Tuesday evening, Riski wrote a story using quotes from the president’s interview and professor’s email. The headline: “Seattle U Jesuit Deems Photo Offensive, Pulls Copies From Stands.”
The story has gained attention from nearby businesses, including Queer Bar, which wrote on its Facebook page that Sundborg and Leigh are no longer welcome there, though it’s unclear if they were ever patrons. The bar also said it would welcome all Seattle University students with open arms, and anyone with a student ID will get in for free Saturday to watch drag performers.
In an email sent Thursday afternoon to Seattle U students and staff members, Sundborg wrote that he didn’t intend to be critical of the person in the photo or any other member of their community. He wrote that he is sincerely sorry that “some in our community feel harmed by the comments I made … and are questioning the value I place on LGBTQ members of our community.”
“As a campus community, we have made a strong commitment to inclusive excellence and working to make sure everyone at Seattle feels a sense of belonging,” Sundborg wrote. “I believe in and remain committed to this important work we began a few years ago.”
The Spectator staff members say they have no regrets, and stressed that they stand with the LGBTQA community.
On Thursday, they joked, a lot of the newsstands were empty again.
“But this time, I think it’s because people are genuinely picking up copies,” Riski said. “That’s encouraging to see.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly said Seattle University was in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Seattle University is in the First Hill neighborhood.