By Guest Writer Alondra Reyes '18
The clock chimes twelve times. The show is sold out after fifteen minutes. I count maybe fifty or sixty pairs of wet shoes stomping on the carpet. Piles of coats tossed to the corner of the room. LL Bean and the North Face. Wallets opening. Jewelry flashing. It is the most well-attended party of the year, despite the cold. I rub my hands together, trying to generate heat.
I am backstage, getting ready to perform. Everyone crowds around the three white drag queens, complimenting their bleach blonde, neon purple, and midnight black wigs, trying to snap a quick picture for Instagram. They whistle and exclaim, “You better work, bitch!” as the drag queens strike poses. My group, Latinx, makes up the majority of people of color in the room. We sit crowded together, doing our make-up, trying to avoid talking about the fact that something doesn’t feel right. One of my fellow dancers leans in and whispers jokingly, “I’m feeling slightly gentrified.” Only slightly?
We are in the middle of a run-through when one of the drag queens walks over and cheers us on. They tell us we are their favorite act before reciting the lyrics to Beyoncé’s “Formation” as encouragement. With a flip of their blonde wig, they sing,
“I got hot sauce in my bag...swag.”
Someone on my dance team, who is Black, puts her hand on her hip and asks the drag queen, “Do you actually have hot sauce in your bag, though? Because I know I do.” She is joking, but the room grows uncomfortably silent.
The drag queen, caught off-guard, takes a second before smiling and saying, “I love hot sauce!”
And then, because she does not want to start an argument, my dance partner laughs a big laugh, walks up to the dance queen, and gives them a high-five.
No one talks about it afterward.
You see, what the Drag Ball flyers do not mention is that appropriation makes commodities out of communities. Mount Holyoke is an institution of knowledge production that, through Drag Ball every year, perpetuates the notion that drag belongs to white, economically privileged college students. This is not, of course, an isolated incident of racial microaggression on this campus. But what gets me about Drag Ball, what has me gritting my teeth in the dressing room and rehearsing the dance steps with less self-assurance than before, is how this event is so depoliticized, taken out of its historical and cultural specificity and celebrated by those for whom it was not created. The cotton candy and glow-in-the-dark balloons, the cisgender men wearing dresses as they grope their girlfriends, the white, queer students shouting “you better work, bitch!” All of this eclipses the histories of Black and Latinx gay men, trans women, and gender nonconforming people who originated the ball culture as a way to forge an oasis within streets systemically designed to devalue their lives.
Ironically, some of the proceeds from Drag Ball go towards House of Colors, a predominantly low-income, Puerto Rican and Black LGBTQ+ youth group in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I wonder how many of the event’s attendees know this fact, and I wonder how many care. As a volunteer at House of Colors who knows the importance of supporting queer and trans youth of color in acquiring the tools to determine their own lives and the well-being of their communities, I recognize that the proceeds will make a difference. But does this mitigate the appropriative violence of Mount Holyoke’s Drag Ball?
The drag queen with the bleach blonde wig performs under a rainbow-colored splattering of spotlights. I feel overwhelmed with feeling as I watch from the auditorium’s balcony. Where I am from--Brooklyn, New York and Camden, New Jersey--being publicly gay almost always means humiliation and alienation at the hands of family and society. This is why, for some time, I was only out to my best friend Zachary, who is also gay and would hold my hand in school so that people thought we were a straight couple.
It is only at Mount Holyoke that I can be safely out. For that reason, I do not take for granted the ways in which Drag Ball celebrates queer and trans self-expression and visibility on campus. And so, it is with a feeling of pride as well as frustration that I watch the drag show from atop the balcony.
I am not asking that Drag Ball be replaced with a mandatory all-campus viewing of Paris is Burning, the cult documentary about Harlem drag culture that profited off of depictions of poor, Black and Latinx gay/trans communities while failing to critique or combat their political, economic, and social marginalization. Exploitation through film is no substitution for appropriation through campus party.
I am envisioning, instead, a world where these communities can reclaim Drag Ball from those for whom it was never intended.
I am envisioning a world where predominantly white institutions and their students are held accountable, where we as students are called to re-evaluate the violence behind appropriated dances, costumes, catchphrases, and histories.
I am envisioning a world without transmisogyny, homophobia, and violence.
What I am envisioning, at the root, is a world without poverty, capitalism, white supremacy, prisons, patriarchy, lack of equitable education, and homelessness.
On stage, the bleach blonde drag queen sings a Marina & the Diamonds song, “Hollywood.” The crowd is jumping up and down, almost in tandem. I lean forward on the banister of the balcony, listening closely to the lyrics:
Living in a movie scene
Puking American dreams, oh, oh
I'm obsessed with the mess that's America
I'm obsessed with the mess that's America.