Ornamented with stiletto heels, leotards and shimmering highlighter, the UC Santa Cruz queer community celebrated the annual Drag Ball — a brave space for members of the LGBTQIA+ community to explore and express their identities.
While many people came as spectators, several were courageous enough to perform. These participants showed off their routines and modeled their unparalleled makeup and styling skills.
A drag performer embodies a different persona, with a choreographed or improvised lip-synced routine consisting of exaggerated emotion and playful mockery of audience members. Though drag performance is often associated with gay men, drag performers can be of all genders and sexual identities.
Dressing in drag for the first time this year, UCSC fourth-year Nathan Karas, known as Femme the Gemini, wore a crown of roses reminiscent of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and performed a routine to music by Ariana Grande.
“As a genderqueer individual, I feel that I have both masculine and feminine characteristics in my body,” Femme said. “Drag, or at least dressing more feminine, is a way to express that.”
Organized by a committee of student leaders from Oakes and Rachel Carson Colleges, planning began in fall quarter. Obtaining funding involved requesting support from provosts and UCSC college senates. Supplementary funding came from donations and the sale of raffle tickets for prizes.
Some attendees were dissatisfied with the organization of the planning committee and felt too many straight people were involved. Planners of the Drag Ball consulted the Cantú Queer Center, the LGBTQIA+ resource center on campus, to request advice on how to be more inclusive. This prompted controversy as some would have liked to have seen the Cantú facilitate the event to orient it more toward the queer community.
“If queer people aren’t planning queer events, then who are you planning it for?” Femme said.
Kylie Minono, a professional drag queen and representative of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Queens of the Castro (QOC), emceed the event. Drag Ball was ultimately a fundraising event — all proceeds raised during the event went to QOC.
The mission of QOC is to educate middle and high school youth in the Bay Area about drag and queer culture, specifically the difference between gender and sexuality. QOC has provided over $20,000 in scholarships to LGBTQIA+ youth between the ages of 16 and 25 in its seven years of operation.
Exoticized, made fun of and appropriated, drag culture is often misunderstood and stigmatized in mainstream social spheres. Prominent among these misconceptions is confusion on the difference between performing drag and being transgender.
“A lot of trends in the mainstream are from drag, and they’re mainly from Black drag queens, and a lot of people don’t recognize that,” said second-year UCSC attendee Maddy Bender, dressed as Marie Antoinette. “I wish that people even within the drag community knew that. It’s like turning a blind eye to all of what is so mainstream about drag and not really giving credit to those who deserve it.”
Many mainstream colloquial terms actually originated from drag queens such as: “shady,” “yas,” “werk gurl,” “serving looks,” “hunty,” “resting bitch face,” “tea,” and “gives me life,” according to Mic.com.
While drag is practiced by folks of all identities, transgender females are often mislabeled as drag queens, according to Everyday Feminism. This invalidates the gender identities of transgender folks as drag does not relate to a person’s gender.
“The thing is, trans is who you are, drag is what you do,” said Drag Ball performance competition winner Sierra — as in Sierra in Spanish, with the rs rolled. “Drag itself is self-expression, it’s literally not meant to be taken seriously. ”
The prevalence of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric is threatening to increase due to outspoken leaders like Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos. This means that methods of self-expression like drag culture, as well as human rights for LGBTQIA+ folks, are in danger. Events like this are a way for the queer community to push back and provide a space for self expression.
“There is the entire stigma that feminine expressive people are weak or too emotionally sensitive, when the reality is that people that I know that do dress up and do drag […] are themselves some of the strongest, fiercest people that I know,” Femme the Gemini said.