Drag Ball: A Manifesto in Two Parts

Drag Ball takes place this Saturday at 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tickets are available only at Queerfest events and will not be sold at the door. All tickets are $12.

Hunter O'Neill

Hunter O’Neill President, Drag Ball Committee

The term “drag ball” is thrown around on campus as if it were an Oberlin-specific phenomenon, but this could not be further from the truth: drag balls find their roots in Harlem at the turn of the 20th century. Though initially organized by white gay men, they featured multiracial audiences and participants. The balls became sites of non-conformist expressions of racial, sexual and gender identity, and began to transform from “costume parties” to full-out drag beauty pageants. Slowly, as the 1960’s rolled around, white participants and organizers began to exercise a form of control and appropriation that offered queens of color little to no voice, respect or recognition within the balls, situating the “realness” of drag inside white cultural standards of beauty.

Due to these dynamics, and the shifting nature of hostility toward black queer cultural practices and gender non-conformity, black queer ball circuits and networks began to appear all over New York City, especially in Harlem, and were held very late at night so folks could walk the streets in full drag without fear of being attacked. Ball networks and familial alliances were formed rapidly and “houses” started appearing, providing a space of protection, care and artistic creation within working-class queer communities of color. The house ball scene took traditional understandings of “drag” and subverted it to express the ways in which gender is performed in everyday life.

We have come to a point in Oberlin’s relationship with drag ball where we can remember and draw inspiration from previous balls, but drag ball must undergo a radical transformation, and holding onto the memory of how “fabulous” and “extravagant” past balls were will distract us from taking advantage of the transformative position we are in now with drag ball. “Transformative” in this context, means that we have the chance to reclaim drag ball as a politically queer event that challenges and resists the hegemonic confinements of identity rather than simply celebrate how exciting it is to play with gender.

Why is a critical engagement with Drag Ball and an articulation of politics so important? There are far more people engaged in misunderstandings and appropriations of drag than there are people rooted in, and active participants of, drag cultures and communities. Yes, Drag Ball is for everyone, but due to its position both inside and outside the space of a “queer life-world” and its attendance by a mostly straight and cis-gendered audience, queers looking to generate drag environments have to navigate cautiously through feelings of belonging and feelings of invasion.

How do we foster a space where queer and transgendered students can feel engaged or excited and not compromised?

  1. We seek to create discomfort, uneasiness and queer chaos to normative understandings of gender and sexuality.
  2. We utilize the term “queer” to make clear our resistance toward modes of sexual and gender identity that we cannot and will not fit into.
  3. We celebrate the strange and the deviant.
  4. We will not stand for drag that engages in the mockery of trans and gender-variant people.
  5. Drag Ball will no longer be articulated solely within the binaries of “men” becoming drag queens and “women” becoming drag kings. This act of “reversal” certainly works as a viable form of drag, but is most definitely not the only type of drag. By disassociating with it, we are resisting both the gender binary of man/woman and that of normative drag.
  6. Drag that relies on and promotes racism, classism or ableism is never acceptable.
  7. Genderfucking does NOT result in the disappearance of people’s personal sexual boundaries. Drag Ball will not tolerate sexual assault! Ever!

Reivin Johnson, Drag Ball Committee Member

I believe that there should be one main goal for each annual Oberlin College Drag Ball: The event honors the history of the LGBT Oberlin Drag Ball Legacy while transforming it into a post-binary Trans-Queer Utopia. I predict that anyone who attends Drag Ball Wedding will have a good time, but only those who are really queer will be liberated. So, I pose a question to future Drag Ball enthusiasts: Is the event relevant to queer culture, politics and resistance? Is this about us?

Past Drag Balls have excluded members of the trans-queer community and have thus not actualized their truly deviant queer potential. In all their attempts to represent radical politics in action, old drag balls could have been more aware of other cultural and performance factors. As in, where are all of the alternative brown queer performers?

Drag Ball Wedding is cooler because it is the first drag ball at Oberlin in a while in which all of the performers are of color. Kevin Aviance, Ginger LeRoux, Brontez and The Lost Bois represent the wide array of queer performance that exist in underground communities. This year’s Drag Ball will create an event that is more inclusive for queer, trans and gender-non-conforming folks. Additionally, it establishes the precedent for a trans-queer theory that deemphasizes personal boundaries of sex and gender stereotypes and encourages a ball that pays more attention to public acts of sexual deviance.