Editorial: Religious universities need to meet their student bodies halfway


Daniel X. O'Neil | Flickr

Duquesne University officials notified students organizing the Department of Women and Gender Studies’ gender-neutral fashion show of new restrictions to refrain from using gender-neutral language and photographs.

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

Outrage erupted among some students at Duquesne University last year when posters went up for the Department of Women and Gender Studies’ gender-neutral fashion show. The poster, which featured a man wearing a dress, preceded a show that was highly attended and well received.

While preparing for their second annual fashion show this October, Duquesne officials notified students producing the show of new restrictions. This year, the administration requires that the show refrain from using gender-neutral language and photographs in their posters. This is due to “complaints they had received about the 2018 posters,” according to the Duquesne student newspaper. Many students feel this rule infringes on their self expression, and creates an unsafe space for those of certain gender identities.

Duquesne is a private, catholic university. In this sense, it can direct religious studies and practices however it wishes, but in terms of student life, religious universities need to progress and be open to students with various gender identities and sexualities. Student bodies are becoming more diverse, and religious universities such as Duquesne should make deliberate changes to meet their students’ needs.

Support for certain LGBTQ+ issues has been increasing steadily over the past 20 years. A Pew research study found that over 60% of Catholics now support same-sex marriage, compared to just 34% in 2002. Even Pope Francis — equivalent to the overall boss of the Catholic Church and organization — has expressed support of same-sex marriage. This upward trend is likely to continue, especially because each generation seems to be more progressive and open-minded about social issues than the one that came before it.

Gender neutrality isn’t even anything new, according to Laura Engel, a literature and gender studies professor at Duquesne. Fashion was often neutral and ambiguous in the 18th century, frequently including wigs, makeup and high heels. She said she doesn’t understand why the administration feels that the show does not reflect catholic values.

“The runway walk was people wearing clothes that you would see people wearing every day. This was not a costume show; this was a show about people just walking and saying hello and being appreciated for how they wanted to present themselves,” Engel said to the Duquesne newspaper. “It was really one of those special moments at Duquesne.”

It’s possible to express faith alongside sexual and gender identity. In Madison, Wisconsin, students at the catholic Edgewood College have their own Queer Student Center.  They host movie nights and events for all students on campus. This is a step forward for inclusivity, but the Duquesne ruling is a reminder of how much room there is for growth.

The most important biblical rule — aside from loving God — is to love your neighbor as yourself. It is the job of religious universities, then, to provide a safe space for all of their students. They have to be inclusive to their student body as a whole, not just those who are straight and cisgender.