TW: transphobia, suicide, depression, violence against trans people.
Arriving at Princeton as an exchange student from Oxford this fall, I was excited to see that the University had been ranked in the top 25 LGBTQ-friendly campuses in the country by the Campus Pride Index. This year, the index placed special significance on the extent to which colleges support trans and gender-non-conforming students. Princeton’s annual drag ball could not have been further from supportive: it created an environment so often at the root of transphobia, and must call into question the judgement of those who compile the index.
It is important to clarify immediately that wearing drag does not equate with being trans: drag is a gender-related expression, not an expression of gender. In writing this article, I am aware of the historic significance that drag has among the LGBT community, and of the role it has played fostering subversion of gender norms, or, put simply, providing a “fuck you” to rules and stereotypes.
However, the ball was a garish piece of theatre, described by Princeton LGBT Centre as an event that “draws students straight and gay, and brings out the drag inside all of us”. The drag I saw was an over-the-top caricature of femininity, designed to ridicule, with drunk straight men in pink, sequined dresses. Crucially, the fact they were in drag was the butt of the joke; for many, it was what made the ball a more entertaining night than a normal Friday at Terrace. This reduces the people dressed in drag to jesters, who amused at the expense of those who are not born cisgendered. As the LGBT Centre explains “many people who don’t compete [in the drag competition] will dress in drag just for the fun of it”. This is a complete bastardisation of the subversive act that was described above. If you are not involved in trans liberation, and dress in drag for an easy laugh, you are degrading trans people. There were countless examples of this at Terrace, and it was irresponsible of the LGBT Centre to organise an event open to anyone, ally or not, like this.
Beyond belittling trans women into jokes for straight men, events like the ball form the bedrock of transphobia in America. The visibility of the trans community is still painfully low, and it is important not to underestimate the influence of these events on the oppression that trans people experience.
At one end of the spectrum sits RuPaul’s Drag Race. In 2012, RuPaul told viewers that the difference between a drag queen and a trans person was “about $25,000 and a good surgeon”. Alaska Thunderfuck, a contestant from season five of the show, produced a video in which a drag queen appeared to shoot and kill a wig- and moustache-clad trans woman, simply because she objected to the use of certain language by drag queens. It goes without saying that such degradation and threatening of trans people is dangerous and deeply offensive.
These are two extreme examples of transphobia, and are a horrific reminder of the oppression that trans people face on a daily basis. Drag acts dominate public perception of trans people. This leads to misrepresentation (Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, the fictional trans woman portrayed by cis Jared Leto) and the discrimination described above. The ball allowed this problem to propagate. If we are to stand in solidarity with our trans allies, should we organise events which fuel the fire of transphobia, and make drag a caricaturing entertainment for all?
In 2014, 55% of LGBT homicide victims were trans women; so far in 2015, 12 trans women of colour have been lynched in America. 41% of trans people attempt suicide. People who dress in drag don’t face the scale of workplace harassment or violence that trans people suffer; instead trans people are outcast partly because of the ignorance that drag shows like the one at Terrace foster. Despite what the LGBT Centre may say, we don’t have drag inside us all; an event that claims this at best fails to challenge our transphobic culture, or at worst buys into it.
My concern with the ball is two-fold. Firstly, a drag ball for all meant that people who are not allied to the cause of trans-liberation dressed as women for cheap laughs. Secondly, drag shows in general perpetuate the pernicious mainstream attitude towards trans women. This second reason conflicts with drag’s history within the LGBT community, but that doesn’t mean that we should not reassess how responsible a form of entertainment or expression drag is. If we take a step back, we’ll find an activity that we ought to be a lot more sensitive with.
As a footnote, the drag ball accepted donations for Triad House, a group home for abused and homeless LGBTQ youth. It seems neither tactful nor sensible to organise an event that will create the problems such a charity is trying to solve. My challenge to the LGBT Center: if the popularity of the drag ball is not rooted in the novelty of men wearing women’s clothing, then it would be of no consequence, financial or otherwise, to change the format of next year’s event.