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UNC Asheville’s annual Drag Ball challenges conventional ideas of gender with enthusiastic and respectful reactions from the campus and Asheville community, according to UNCA students.
“There are a lot of reasons people do drag, but I find a consistent reason through most is that it’s a way to put a smaller self of your personality on stage to help either strengthen that part of you, or bring that part to light and help you understand that part of yourself more so than you had before,” said Andrew Espenshade, a junior at UNCA.
Last Thursday’s event, hosted by UNCA’s Alliance, brought about 200 audience members who cheered as both amateurs from UNCA and professionals from Club Hairspray showed their talents, according to Matthew Turpin, president of Alliance.
“I was so impressed. I was so happy with the turnout,” said Turpin. “Drag can be hyper-sexualizing, an art performance, a gender, it can be a political statement, it can be whatever the person wants it to be and I think we saw all of that.”
As performers danced, acted and lip-synced in costumes ranging from elaborate and colorful to simple and understated, the music vibrated tangibly through the floorboards and brought audience members to their feet, illuminated by the colored lights racing across the room.
“People giving their all and exposing themselves and being met only with acceptance is really cool to see,” said Coraline Badgett, a sophomore at UNCA who attended Drag Ball. “I feel like it’s one of the only places that’s like that.”
The reigning Miss Blue Ridge Pride made a guest appearance and gave a speech which enthused both audience members and performers.
“For me personally, having Miss Blue Ridge Pride there was wonderful,” said Espenshade, who performed at Drag Ball.
Blue Ridge Pride is a nonprofit organization that offers education, awareness and entertainment in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community in the Blue Ridge areas.
“(Blue Ridge Pride organization) is a good friend, and the sweetest, most influential and wonderful people you could ever meet,” Espenshade said.
In a society that holds strict conceptions of gender and masculinity, drag can draw very negative reactions from some people who do not understand its purpose or simply feel uncomfortable around people who choose to dress as the opposite sex, said Turpin, a sophomore at UNCA.
“I think drag’s really revolutionary, and it makes a lot of people really uncomfortable and that shows how engrained gender roles are, because I mean in drag, you’re just dressing or a lot of times, just dressing in the opposite gender’s clothing,” Turpin said. “In the United States, there’s the idea that gender is a naturally occurring thing in nature, and that you’re born with your gender.”
Many people do not understand the difference between gender and sex, and believe gender is an identity that cannot be changed, Turpin said. Gender is state of being male or female, determined by cultural and societal conceptions, rather than biological constructions, according to the Oxford Dictionaries.
In Espenshade’s second performance, an emotionally charged dance that ended with a bare-it-all finale including the removal of his wig, jewelry and much of his clothing, he portrays society’s discomfort with nontraditional gender roles.
“My second performance is all about putting on faces or masks as ‘expected’ by society. As any label, you’re expected to act in a specific stereotypical way as defined by that label, and as you find yourself in different places throughout the day and week you put on different ‘masks,’” said Espenshade, a drama and math student.
In the room decked out with metallic balloons and colorful streamers, some performances were more theatrical, such as one group’s Alice in Wonderland-inspired theme, and others more musical, such as the dynamic duo playing in a mock rock band. Regardless of the performance, each act ended with dollar bills littering the dance floor.
“I’d been to drag shows that have been downtown and at various clubs, but seeing that kind of show put on at the university by our club was really impressive,” said Badgett, a French student. “I just kind of saw it like the epitome of positivity.”
The success of Drag Ball might be an indication of the changes in American society, and moving toward increased open-mindedness, Turpin said.
“I think we live in a really heteronormative society, and I was really glad to see so many people turn out for Drag Ball, so that gives me hope that things are changing,” Turpin said. “It was beautiful.”