I am the first to admit that I have a tendency to overanalyze things. Take, for example, last Friday’s iteration of the annual Terrace Club Drag Ball, which I overanalyzed for days. I’d been feeling down and antisocial and stressed, and above all guilty about every moment of time not spent doing something productive. I’d been working myself up into a frenzy for weeks about the need to be always doing something. And so, of course, as the possibility of going to a huge party on a Friday night at an eating club loomed, I started concocting arguments and excuses. My antisociality battled it out with my desire to be popular as I weighed alternatives. I could flip out about how to do “drag” (an open question, since I wear men’s clothes normally), or I could flip out about whether I would feel like a loser if I didn’t go, the guilt only piling up further as I spent Thursday and Friday procrastinating on the work to be done this past weekend while my friends talked about the impending drag ball.
Well, to make a long story short, I am happy to say that my sensible side won out: deciding that I wouldn’t get any work done after 11pm anyway, and pointing out to myself that it’s November and I hadn’t yet gone out once this year, I resolved to just deal with my gender-performativity identity crisis by reading Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” (which I highly recommend regardless of whether you’re planning on attending a drag ball) and getting an appropriately academic handle on my emotions. I put on a tie as a vague concession to dressing up, and at the appointed hour trudged across campus to 62 Washington Road.
Dear reader, you would think I would know that after nearly twenty years of pulling this sort of melodrama, things are never as problematic as I make them out to be. Of course I had fun at the drag ball, and of course it was a welcome relief to socialize and dance and cheer on my friends in the traditional runway show/contest/thing. But more than that, I was able to remember that such a social event is by no means a waste of time, or a detraction from either my academic or my political work. Not only is socializing rejuvenating (since Friday night, I’ve been more productive than I’ve been in weeks), it’s just as much a political statement as a march or a rally or an election campaign.
Sometime around 1am, when I was jumping up and down in time to a RuPaul song, getting beer spilled on the nice trousers I stupidly decided to wear, as three good Princeton boys faced off in the final round of the drag queen competition, I realized something that should have been glaringly obvious: this is precisely what I am fighting for. The right to be different, to my mind, is as gloriously essential as marriage rights or parenting rights or immigration rights or non-discrimination rights; de facto equality is as important, if not more important than, de jure equality. Celebration is tied right up in queer history with the fight for equal rights. You don’t have gay liberation without the Firehouse dances; you don’t have ’70s and ’80s New York without disco; you don’t have modern queer culture without Pride. And it is not irrelevant, either, that the first major event the brand-new Gay Alliance of Princeton sponsored in 1973 was a dance—on the top floor of New South, out of the way of a largely hostile institutional culture, close to Spelman and far from the Street. These dances were an annual occurrence for years, but it is no small thing that, 26 years since that first dance, a decidedly queer party can take place in an eating club. It doesn’t matter in the least that the club in question is Terrace—that drag can penetrate the Street at all is perfectly extraordinary, and evidence of how rapidly Princeton culture has changed since the early ’70s.
And so as I walked home Friday, after staying at drag ball far later than I’d told myself I would, after seeing most of my friends there, after laughing and dancing and having fun in a large group as I haven’t in some time, I told myself that there is no point in fighting if I cannot also celebrate what I am fighting for. What, then, am I fighting for? Well, I hope Congress passes the bills before it, and I hope state legislatures do as well. But more than that, I hope that every young person in America who wants to has the opportunity to go to a drag ball, or a queer dance, and to laugh and dance and shout the lyrics to RuPaul songs and be free. And I hope that every young person in America who already has the freedom to go to these events remembers that this freedom—like all others in the history of social justice and equality—has not been easily won.