Drag Ball Attendees Must Prioritize Trans, Queer Identities

Hundreds of students will flood Wilder Hall Saturday night dressed in gender non-conforming clothing and ready to have the time of their lives. Drag Ball is one of the highlights of the school year for many students. It is a time when both LGBTQ and non-queer students can come together, celebrate queer culture, and enjoy an abundance of glitter. When Drag Ball goes well, it gives LGBTQ students — especially transgender and gender-nonconforming students — a chance to celebrate their identities without fear of judgement. The evening should also serve as a way for non-queer students to respectfully explore gender nonconformity and express appreciation for their queer friends. The workshops individuals are required to attend to gain entry to Drag Ball can also serve to educate non-queer students about LGBTQ issues and teach LGBTQ students about queer identities different from their own. However, Drag Ball does not currently function this way, and instead can create discomfort for some transgender students and reinforce non-queer privilege.

Many transgender students feel uncomfortable about the choice between being a drag king or a drag queen. Drag performance is often centered around performing as the opposite gender. For transgender students, this can mean either having to pick between two genders with which they don’t identify or dressing as a gender they feel uncomfortable presenting. Rather than allowing queer students to embrace their identities, Drag Ball can invoke feelings of discomfort and dysphoria.

To buy a ticket to attend Drag Ball, students must go to at least one event designated as a Drag Ball Workshop. Although the workshops are supposed to make Drag Ball a safer space for LGBTQ students by teaching valuable lessons about privilege and oppression, many of them do not actually educate students about queer issues. For example, students could attend Colors of Rhythm in order to purchase a ticket for Drag Ball. Colors of Rhythm is an amazing event that emphasizes the accomplishments of POC students, and can definitely serve as a way to initiate dialogue about racism and intersectionality of marginalized identities at Oberlin. However, although some of the performances did feature queer students, none of the performances intended to celebrate queerness in a primary way. Attending Colors of Rhythm does nothing to prepare non-queer students to be respectful at Drag Ball. Yes, Colors of Rhythm does address issues pertaining to marginalized groups. But educating people about one type of oppression does very little to teach them about other kinds of oppression. Counting Colors of Rhythm as a Drag Ball event unintentionally equates racism with queerphobia, which undermines the real harm caused by each.

Because many people who attend Drag Ball do not learn about queer culture from the required events, some students end up appropriating drag culture. For example, one non-queer student posted a survey in the Facebook group Oberlin 2020 asking for a makeup artist to do his makeup for Drag Ball without a clear indication that he would compensate them for their labor. Asking a member of a marginalized group to which you don’t belong to help you engage in their cultural practice — without compensating them for their time and labor — is a clear example of cultural appropriation. Rather than celebrating drag culture, this practice takes advantage of queer people’s skills and knowledge without giving them the credit and compensation they deserve.

Appropriation of queer culture is far more likely when folks attend workshops that do not actually educate them on queer issues and drag etiquette. Problematic behavior that emerges before Drag Ball even begins sets the stage for LGBTQ students to feel unsafe, and undermines a climate meant to celebrate queer students and culture.

It is not a bad thing that non-queer students are encouraged to attend Drag Ball. In fact, Drag Ball can be a way for those students to engage with gender and expose them to what queer students bring to Oberlin. However, non-queer students need to be extra vigilant about checking their privilege at Drag Ball. If students were required to attend multiple workshops before buying a Drag Ball ticket — and if at least one of those workshops directly pertained to transgender issues, gender non-conformity, or drag culture — then non-queer students would be better prepared to respect queer folks at Drag Ball.

Furthermore, Drag Ball Committee could publicize some of the non-drag aspects of the event, such as the music and dancing, so that transgender students would feel less pressure to choose between being a drag queen or a drag king.

Ever since the late 1800s in the U.S., drag has served as a way for queer folks to express themselves and provided a space for LGBTQ folks to have fun without fear of persecution. If LGBTQ students feel uncomfortable at Drag Ball, then the event isn’t serving its purpose. It ends up benefiting non-queer students more than the queer community and reinforces the idea that non-queer people can appropriate queer culture without respecting LGBTQ folks.

Drag Ball should be a place where all students can feel safe and have a great time, no matter what they wear. But non-queer students need to remember that Drag Ball is a time for LGBTQ students to feel like royalty.