A student club at Western Carolina University is defending its decision to pair a drag show featuring “kings” and “queens” from across the state with a get-out-the-vote drive aimed at defeating a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages.
“We could open up a shelter for puppies and those who hate us would still hate us; that’s no matter what we do, drag show or no drag show,” said Katlyn Williams, 19, a WCU student from Andrews.
The drag show is an exclamation point on a day filled with educational events about Amendment One. Gay-marriage supporters believe an anti-gay marriage amendment would constitutionalize state-abetted discrimination in North Carolina.
This is not the first drag show at WCU. A drag show held last April at the University Center at WCU attracted upwards of 450 spectators, according to members of the student group UNITY!
“We have not in the past few years had any issues with the community at any of our events,” said club leader Zachery Reedy, 22, a former WCU student from Chicago. Reedy isn’t enrolled this semester. He said that he plans to return to classes at the university to complete a degree.
Drag shows divisive among gays
UNITY! members described the drag shows at the University Center as popular among homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. Audience members, they said, are from both on and off campus.
The shows feature men and women dressed as members of the opposite sex, usually with exaggerated personas, who dance, sing or lip-synch to music. Drag shows are becoming ever-more mainstream with the advent of performers such as RuPaul and the mind-bending, drag-queen imitating Lady Gaga.
But, drag shows historically have been a source of vehement disagreement within the gay and lesbian community. Some gays and lesbians believe the high energy, campy shows fuel stereotypes and further alienate many “straight” people from serious efforts to ensure equality for all. Drag show critics say that queens in particular underscore harmful stereotypes of women — similar to what blackface performances by white entertainers did to demean African Americans.
UNITY! club members reject that argument.
“The reason for the drag show is as an incentive to vote,” Reedy said. “Our goal for this day alone is to register 500 people to vote.”
Reedy and other UNITY! members said they do not believe coupling the drag show with the get-out-the-vote effort trivializes or dilutes the political importance of the event. Nor do they believe it might alienate more mainstream “straight” voters who are undecided about whether to vote against the same-sex marriage ban.
The event, coupled with educational efforts, “is a good opportunity to get all people to vote,” said Megan Bailey, 19, who is from Florida but more recently lived in Wilkesboro.
Bailey is leading the voter-registration portion of WCU’s “Race to the Ballot.”
WCU backs students’ drag-show decision
UNITY! faculty advisor Laura Cruz supported students’ decision to hold a drag show in conjunction with a get-out-the-vote rally. She said her role with the group is to guide, not dictate.
“It is a student organization run for and by students,” said Cruz, who made her way to Western North Carolina from San Francisco. “If I think they are going in a wrong direction, I can steer them another way.”
In this case, however, Cruz said she didn’t perceive the decision to hold a drag show as troublesome. Though, she noted, “there is some controversy within the gay community itself about the meaning of drag.”
But UNITY! sponsors drag shows “all the time” at WCU, said Cruz, who is an associate professor of history. The events lined up for Jan. 27 met the club criteria “for support, social events and advocacy.”
Although the University Center is a building owned and managed by the university, its purpose is to serve as a venue for students.
Sam Miller, WCU vice chancellor for student affairs, said that he believes the get-out-the-vote event, coupled with a drag show, is an appropriate on-campus activity.
“I think the job of a public university is to provide both the intellectual framework for students to explore and learn, as well as the physical venues to do so,” Miller wrote in an email interview. “Learning happens in many surprising ways outside the classroom experience. It takes leadership, knowledge and organizational skills to pull off a successful event. The university has a responsibility to stand behind our students and facilitate their learning in their events and activities, as well as the classroom.”
Miller wrote that the University Center was built to help create and support a “broad range” of student-created programs. The University Center, residence halls and similar on-campus facilities are paid for through student fees, Miller noted.
Zero state or tuition dollars are used to pay for social or entertainment-focused student activities, though state funds are used to help support “unique learning opportunities” such as special lectures or other events created in support of curriculum, Miller wrote.