Drag Ball Revamp Deviates from Tone of Event’s Past

The Editorial Board

By the way, Drag Ball is this weekend.

You might have missed the Facebook reminders (because there really were none), the posters (also few and far between), and most unfortunately, if you just arrived on campus this September, you might not know the Ball is a thing at all. As seniors who remember the all-Wilder-consuming, Wizard-of-Oz-themed, end-of-an-era blowout Ball of 2009, we cannot help but lament the apparent demise of the great Oberlin get-together to celebrate the queerness in all of us.

The cancellation of Drag Ball in 2010 due to a lack of student organizational support and funding spurred discussion about whether, in the almost two decades since its inauguration, the event had lost its focus. Some argued that rather than providing a safe, welcoming space for queer and transgendered students, Drag Ball had devolved into a messy, drunken campus-wide party that did nothing to promote awareness of queer issues. The response to these concerns was to subsume the Ball into the umbrella of Queerfest — like Safer Sex Week, a week of panels, workshops, and film screenings designed to ground the student body’s experience at these events in a more serious, focused way. Since last year, would-be Ballgoers must obtain a voucher at selected activities held during the week in order to purchase a ticket for Saturday night’s main event.

Drag Ball’s association with Queerfest ensures that most of this week’s education and messaging about queerness is selected by a specific group of students. With all due respect to the Queerfest organizers’ dedication to creating interesting and inclusive events, there is undoubtedly an ironic power dynamic in their acting as gatekeepers to what is supposed to be an all-campus get-together to let it all hang out — “Learn what we want to teach about queerness, or else you don’t get to experience and experiment with Oberlin’s main showing of queerness for yourself.”

The subtext is that there is an “appropriate” way to perform and interpret various expressions of sexual and gender identities. However, a big part of the spirit of Drag Ball, when we went as starry-eyed first-years to the decidedly extracurricular event, was the chance to simply soak it all in — to spot our classmates in costumes we never dreamed they would wear, to gaze in tipsy wonder at the hyperconfident performers, to just rub shoulders (whether bare or bedazzled) with all kinds of displays of sexuality.

What if, after a few years here or in our own personal experience, we feel we already have a decent grasp on queer issues? What if we feel comfortable with genderbending and agree that it’s detrimental to any community when people decide they don’t want to get comfortable with it? What if we find ourselves pretty busy catching up on stuff the week after spring break, lacking the time to perfunctorily attend a movie screening? What if we just want to go to Drag Ball?

The fact that more informative events about LGBTQ concerns are happening on campus is exciting. The fact that they are happening in conjunction with Drag Ball makes a lot of sense and has the potential to constructively contextualize the event for attendees. But it seems that in order to be the really welcoming, campus-enlivening event for which it gained not just a reputation, but achieved legendary status (e.g., in 1996, MTV provided teens nationwide with live coverage of the full event), Drag Ball has to be open to all, even those who are skeptical up to the last minute when their friends drag them — pun intended — to the ’Sco.

In the rush to further the educational value of Drag Ball, it seems we may have lost sight of its function as a purely social institution. For decades, Drag Ball marked a first-year’s initiation into a uniquely Oberlin way of having fun and encouraging candor on issues the rest of society tends to ignore with a near-Puritanical determination. Obies’ enthusiastic openness to sexual and gender expression gained our annual party a mention in Rolling Stone in the ’90s as “the Mardi Gras of the Midwest.” Change happens, but it’s sad to think a new generation of students might lose all memory of what we were capable of when we made a concerted effort to stop taking things so seriously.