BY SHILOH FREDERICK '17
Despite the College’s extensive collection of documents from its LGBTQ orgs, Mount Holyoke College lacks a definitive history of its biggest annual party traditionally hosted by these orgs. If not for old financial ledgers and a smattering of event flyers, the only record Mount Holyoke would have of its past Drag Balls would be in the minds of its past attendees. Although the party’s history may be lost to time, FAMILIA, an organization for Mount Holyoke’s LGBTQ people of color, is determined that Drag Ball not lose its historical and cultural roots as well.
When Alondra Reyes ’18 performed with her dance team at Drag Ball in the spring of 2016, she was dismayed at how out of touch the event seemed from its origins in Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge. The popular club in the historically Black neighborhood in New York City had started hosting what it called “Masquerade and Civic Balls” in the 1920s. At its height, what eventually became known as “drag balls” served as a “social space of safety and acceptance” for the queer community, according to Queer Music Heritage.
With its white drag queens, “the cotton candy and glow-in-the-dark balloons, the cisgender men wearing dresses as they grope their girlfriends and the white, queer students shouting ‘you better work, bitch!’” the roots of Mount Holyoke’s Drag Ball seemed lost to Reyes, as she later wrote in an article published on Mount Holyoke Radix. “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.”
After hearing of Reyes’s article, the board of OUT-reach, the Mount Holyoke LGBTQ organization that had been hosting the event for the past several years, decided that it wasn’t right for them to be in charge of putting on this party. Instead, they handed the reigns to FAMILIA, the organization that Reyes currently co-chairs.
FAMILIA kept the cotton candy machine and the photo booth stocked with fedoras, feather boas and neon-colored oversized glasses. The all-white drag queens, however, were replaced with professional drag performers from the Imperial Court of Western Massachusetts. The usual pulsing EDM music was replaced with hip hop, reggaeton and bachata music. “Music more people on campus could enjoy and could attract people of all communities on campus,” Reyes said.
As per usual, students braved the cold to bare some skin in Chapin Auditorium. Reyes was pleased with the turn out. “I had a beautiful night,” she said. “It was one of the best nights of my life. Literally, everything went so smoothly. I felt like it was such a safe space for me and for my FAMILIA board and for the youth.”
Despite this year’s success, Reyes said that there is one issue the organization would need to address in order to make Drag Ball ideal. “The only issue that I could see that we need to work on is the security concerns,” she said. “They were very problematic because they are a bunch of old white men and, of course, they abuse their power. So we definitely want to get rid of them or screen them for next year as much as possible.”