BY HOA NGUYEN '18
After a queer student of color wrote an article criticizing Mount Holyoke’s Drag Ball for perpetuating appropriation on campus, OUTreach, the umbrella LGBTQ group that had organized the event for the last two years, decided to stop hosting the event.
The article, “Come one, come all!: The appropriative violence of Mount Holyoke’s Drag Ball,” was published a few months after Drag Ball last year in Mount Holyoke Radix, a student-run radical web publication.
In her article, Alondra Reyes ’18 recalled a moment when one of her peers in her Latinx dance group said she felt ‘slightly gentrified.’ “During the rehearsal in the New York Room, we were pushed into a corner, doing makeup, when these white people came in, loud, exuberant, drunk, like, ‘this was our party,’” Reyes said. Since drag has a historical connotation with a specific, political purpose, she felt like these white students were dominating a party not meant for them.
Later, OUTreach shared the article on their Facebook page and asked for feedback from students. The organization later decided to cancel the event.
It was not until recently that FAMILIA, a group open to LGBTQ people of color on campus, confirmed it would take over Drag Ball this year.
Melina Baron-Deutsch ’16, a former OUTreach leader, said in a phone interview that OUTreach’s board had discussed extensively the critique in the MHRadix article. They realized it was speaking to a larger problem on campus rather than just Drag Ball itself, she said.
According to Baron-Deutsch, OUTreach traditionally made an effort to raise awareness about the purpose of the event by making clear where the proceeds would go. Historically, Drag Ball funds went to the Jolene Fund, now called Lyon’s Legacy Fund, which is intended for students whose parents no longer financially support them because they identify as LGBTQ.
“This year, all our proceeds went to House of Colors,” she said. “In 2015, not only did we support the Lyon’s Legacy Fund, but we also created three scholarships for local LGBTQ youth to attend a LGBTQ summer camp in Vermont.” Much of the ticket money also went toward paying the local QPOC photographer and DJs, she added.
Stephanie Corrales ’16, former co-chair of FAMILIA and coordinator of Drag Ball 2016, said she also believes that Drag Ball at Mount Holyoke is only one example of appropriative violence perpetuated across campus and the systematic racism within and beyond its gates.
Corrales said that there isn’t a definitive history of this event at the school. According to what she found in the archives, Drag Ball emerged on campus as early as the fall of 1999.
“I speculate that Drag Ball 1999 may have been a catalyst for the creation of True Colors,” she said. She explained that three queer student groups, including Spectrum, Slip of the Tongue and the Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Alliance, merged in Nov. 1999 to become True Colors, now under the name OUTreach. Similarly, a closed and confidential group for LGBTQ students of color called SYSTA eventually became FAMILIA to be more inclusive of trans students.
Additionally, Corrales added, Drag Ball did not begin as a predominantly white institution’s college party, but as a means of survival for disenfranchised transgender, gay and lesbian people of color in Harlem.
While the gender-bending Drag Ball is considered one of the most anticipated parties of the year, not every partygoer has come to understand and appreciate this historical context of ball culture, especially in a niche setting that ties in closely with Mount Holyoke.
Reyes said she initially wrote the piece published in Radix for her Feminist Research Methods class. “It was something that has been weighing on my mind, but I’m not the kind of person who just writes an article and sends it to the void,” she said. She believed that her story would garner support from a lot of people because they were aware of the issue but for some reason didn’t want to, or were unable to speak up.
Michelle Araque-Pérez ’18, Five-College representative of FAMILIA, said that it would be odd to have a Drag Ball where the majority of people in the room were white. As a queer person of color who participated in Drag Ball she did not feel that people acknowledge the fact that drag originated in her community. “You feel like the history isn’t respected, and that takes away a part of you, it’s just completely erased.” Without its historical context, she said, having people at Drag Ball just for fun trivializes the original meaning of the event.
In order to mitigate the wave of appropriation and instead adopt Drag Ball’s cultural origins with respect, Reyes, now co-chair of FAMILIA, said the first step would be to engage LGBTQ people of color in the organizing board. “Putting queer and trans people of color in leadership positions, centering them as performers and using tickets to fund them locally would be awesome,” she continued. Araque-Pérez also said that a lot of labor needs to go into giving people credit for organizing the event. “Now that FAMILIA takes charge of organizing the event, I would like people to recognize that it is put on by queer and trans people of color for a reason.”
Taking the concerns from last year into account, FAMILIA has tried to be intentional with respect to planning, from creating a theme and seeking performers to making sure people are aware of the underlying meanings and historical context of Drag Ball. “When we’re tabling, before anyone gets the ticket, they will have a drag culture 101 little run-through to understand where the proceeds are going,” Reyes said. It is likely that proceeds will go to a LGBTQ youth group in Holyoke named House of Colors, the same nonprofit organization that received the funds last year.
A current board member of FAMILIA, Araque Pérez ’18 said the org would focus on the identities of activists who are queer and trans people of color and make that information explicit to people. This will be emphasized during the advertising process, particularly on social media. She said FAMILIA hopes to bring more performers of color into the spotlight, following an example taken from an earlier Drag Ball. “My first year they had Brown Girls Burlesque, which was a great way to support women of color and the arts,” she said.
Corrales, who graduated in May, is planning to come back and attend Drag Ball this year. “While the event planners have no control over who attends, what they do or what that reflects about socio-cultural relations at Mount Holyoke, I challenge everyone who goes to Drag Ball this year to be more intentional about their positionality,” she said.
By mid to late November, FAMILIA will organize a meeting to gather a group of interested students and form a Drag Ball organizing committee, according to co-chair Reyes. For now, they have already been in touch with Student Programs to set up a tentative date for the event in the spring semester.
“The most important thing to me is not to throw the best party on campus but to have a means of providing funds for this nonprofit organization [House of Colors], to provide a lot of resources for the youth to do whatever they want,” said Reyes.