The coming-out of Drag Ball
The 13th annual Oberlin Drag Ball with be held on Saturday. While the yearly ritual of Obie men donning the finery of the opposite sex for a night of school sponsored debauchery is now considered an essential part of the Oberlin experience, this was not always the case.
Drag Ball started out slow. It was conceived in 1991 as simply the final event in Transgender Awareness Week along with its counterpart, the now defunct Lesbutante Ball. Nobody paid much attention to it. There wasn’t even a mention of it in The Oberlin Review.
It was held in the Talcott Dining Hall and was very small. By 1993, whatever minimal zest there had been for the event had pretty much died out. That spring, the Ball was held in South Hall’s basement and was only attended by a few hundred people.
In its fourth year, the Drag Ball faced imminent cancellation. ResLife didn’t want to host the party in the dorms anymore. With nine days to go, the Ball was saved when the Assistant Director of the Student Union, Chris Baymiller, offered the ‘Sco and his organizational help to one of the event’s original planners, David Getsy.
In 1994, things picked up. The Ball began to include the crowning of a King and Queen. People were more focused on dressing up. More and more people began to attend. The party site sprawled to include the entire basement of Wilder, with Wilder Main being the official site in 1995 and 1996.
As Drag Ball’s popularity increased, so did its notoriety. In 1995 it was not only featured in several local newspapers, but Rolling Stone also ran a story on it. The magazine described the Ball as “the Mardi Gras of the Midwest.” In 1996 Drag Ball’s publicity reached fever pitch when MTV accepted the LGBTU’s invitation and aired full coverage of the event.
Drag Ball has a history of being disapproved by some of the College community.
In 2001 Alison Cotterill, a college junior, lodged this complaint in the Review:
“Drag Balls originated in Harlem in the early 1900s as the queer alternative to debutante balls, wherein gay men ‘came out’ as gay to the gay community. Only today does coming out mean coming out to a bunch of straight people, foremost your parents, in this terrible mock confessional. Most straight people just don’t get it. They do not come to the Drag Ball in drag. A guy who puts on his girlfriend’s dress, flits around occasionally for a cheap laugh and still dances with his arms around her, grinding his dick into her is not in drag. I wonder if anyone in the audience has critiqued the fact that Drag Balls have been co-opted and marketed to provide entertainment for rich, white families.”
Similar sentiments were published in 1998 and 2002. The problems don’t end there. In 1998 there was a sexual assault on the night of the Ball. In 2001 there was an alleged rape. There was also a rash of emergency trips for alcohol poisoning. In 2002, alcohol was banned from the event and Safety and Security became more involved.
Despite all of this, since the mid-90s Drag Ball has been seen as an essential part of the Oberlin experience. “It’s almost our equivalent to Homecoming for us,” Baymiller said in a 1997 interview. “It’s not just a bunch of silly frat boys having a keg party; it distinguishes Oberlin as a unique place to attend college.”
Most of the College would seem to agree with him. Close to 2000 people now habitually attend Drag Ball and the outside world regards it as part and parcel with the school: it’s mentioned as a draw for the college in the Fiske Guide to Colleges and in the Princeton Review. But most just see it as a really fun party.
“Go crazy,” one girl said in 1996. “That’s what we’re here for!”