Drag is a nexus in the whole sphere of art,” student drag performer Casey R. Goggin ’19 says.
Amidst students’ half-century long fight for a multicultural center and an ongoing legal battle between single-gender social groups and the University, Harvard students have long grappled with creating and finding affirming spaces on campus.
For a growing contingent of student drag performers, drag — an art form that tackles definitions of expression, privilege, and identity — has emerged as a way of addressing this need. Though the venues and environments in which students perform vary widely, the central role of drag as community building reverberates throughout campus.
Harvard’s long history has been fraught with challenges when it comes to navigating BGLTQ identity. The Secret Court of 1920 — a secretive ad hoc tribunal consisting of five administrators led by then-Dean Chester Noyes Greenough — questioned and eventually removed a group of gay students and an assistant professor from the University. These removals followed the suicide of Cyril B. Wilcox ’22, who had recently confessed to having an affair with Harry Dreyfus, an older Boston man, to his brother George L. Wilcox ’14. After his brother’s death, George gathered names of other men suspected of participating in homosexual activities and presented his findings to Greenough, who then convened the court.
Members of the BGLTQ community at Harvard argue the University still has a ways to go despite its significant strides since The Secret Court. Just last year, BGLTQ graduate students spoke out about a lack of resources for the community, which prompted the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to respond by hiring a BGLTQ fellow. In December, graduate students submitted a proposal to administrators calling for more support structures for underrepresented minorities and BGLTQ students. In response to these criticisms, GSAS spokesperson Ann Hall wrote in an email to the Crimson that the school remains committed to diversity-related programming, regularly working with student groups in a variety of capacities.
These issues of identity, representation, and support for the BGLTQ community are not confined to Harvard, however.
Jonathan M. Square is a History and Literature faculty member studying fashion and visual culture in the African Diaspora. “It’s important to remember the tension between thinking of Harvard as its own petri dish or microcosm, but also remembering that the walls are permeable. It’s in dialogue with things that are happening outside of Harvard,” Square says.
Trying drag here gave me a greater connection to the greater history of drag in the U.S. context and other people of color in the queer community.
Drag is a prominent subculture that has taken root at Harvard. Drag in its most current, well-known form arose in the early 1900s from “ball culture,” a BGLTQ subculture known as the “house system” in which individuals performed in different drag categories to win prizes.
Excluded from “high society,” performers used drag as a way to experience “an executive realness,” according to Square.
“Within the space of these balls, they experiment with new identities and play the high society mistress, or the Wall Street banker, or the straight-presenting banjee boy, or the street walker,” Square says.
Despite their liberating potential, however, these spaces weren’t open to everyone. In response to historical exclusion, black performers decided to establish their own underground ball culture in the 1960s, which coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. The 1970s saw an increase in competition categories as well as participation of previously marginalized performers.
Campus performers today say situating and recognizing drag in its historical context shapes their understanding of its current iteration. NancyBoi is a student drag performer who asked The Crimson to only be identified by drag name.
“From Stonewall and trans women and drag queens of color rebelling against the institutions and laws of that time and subverting these things in a time when that was not as accepted as it is, trying drag here gave me a greater connection to the greater history of drag in the U.S. context and other people of color in the queer community,” NancyBoi says.
For the last three decades, Adams House Drag Night has been one of the house’s proudest traditions. Featuring drag performances by students, tutors, and current faculty deans Judith S. “Judy” Palfrey ’67 and John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67, the annual event is deeply symbolic of Adams House’s identity and history.
“Adams House has an important tradition of being inclusive — inclusive of racial identities, inclusive of gender identities, and sexual orientations — and putting that on stage for whoever wants to be on stage,” Bailey Colfax ’19, former Adams House Committee chair, says. “I think that’s a nice assertion of why Adams House is special. No matter what oppressed group you remain a part of, you are welcome and supported in our house.”
Before the randomization of Harvard’s upperclassmen house lottery system, Adams was known as a safe haven for those in the performing arts and members of the BGLTQ community, according to the house’s website. After an assault by three Kirkland House students on a gay Adams House resident in 1980, the House came together and organized the first Adams House drag ball in a show of support.
Through many conversations within the House committee and with the broader Adams House community, Drag Night has undergone several changes. Though Adams Drag Night was initially conceived as a drag ball, the event has since incorporated drag ball elements into a more standard house-wide social event. During the most recent Drag Night, former house committee co-chairs Colfax and Brady Stevens ’19 delivered a speech to educate audience members about Drag Night’s history and importance. The Office of BGLTQ Student Life helped edit the speech to ensure sensitivity and accuracy in language used.
One student, whom the Crimson granted anonymity because he has concerns about being outed at home, performed at Drag Night for the first time last year. He says the performances were a way for people in the House to learn and support each other, and also serves as a reminder of people coming from backgrounds where their identities weren’t accepted.
“It’s a reminder of how people were treated in the past for whatever they identified as and how we can support them,” he says. “I grew up somewhere where something like this would be unheard of.”
Drag Night has received resounding support from Adams House residents, according to Colfax. In anonymous surveys sent out to the house, students have shared the deeply personal ways Drag Night helped them come to terms with their identity.
“They said they were very uncertain about their own gender identity and were very uncomfortable conforming to what they believed were the expectations for how they presented and how they dressed,” Colfax says of a specific anonymous student response. “Being able to play with that on Drag Night itself maybe inspired an awakening in them and made them realize that it wouldn’t be weird within Adams House.”
It's a reminder of how people were treated in the past for whatever they identified as and how we can support them. I grew up somewhere where something like this would be unheard of.
For student performers, Drag Night is a freeing space. The fact that Drag Night is open to everyone regardless of gender and sexuality means students who have yet to come out can perform without being outed.
Another student, whom the Crimson granted anonymity because she also has concerns about being outed at home, performed at Drag Night after coming out just a few months before.
“Literally anyone can go on that stage and do whatever they want. No one asks any questions,” she says.
While Adams Drag Night has been a longtime house tradition held annually in Adams Dining Hall, Saskia’s Incorporated has provided an emerging counterpoint to college-supported drag. Founded in 2017 and described on its Facebook page as a “a DJ/artist collective building community and safe spaces for queer people, womxn, and QPOC (queer people of color),” Saskia’s is a growing scene among the BGLTQ community at Harvard.
Luke A. Martinez ’19 founded Saskia’s Inc. in 2017. DJ Saskia, Martinez’s alter ego who DJs at Saskia’s parties, arose as an outlet to express their femininity. Though Saskia is not a drag queen, Martinez is invested in creating spaces for drag performers on campus. Following their experiences in techno clubs around Berlin two summers ago, Martinez, who is studying ethnomusicology, was determined to replicate those kinds of spaces back in Cambridge.
Sonya Kalara ’21, who currently helps organize Saskia’s parties, said they have found them empowering.
“Saskia’s is the one time a semester that you could just be fully in yourself,” Kalara says. “Harvard is not really a place that encourages divergence from the norm, but Saskia’s is fully built on the idea of divergence and loving yourself because of it.”
Bringing together DJs, drag performers, and attendees from across Greater Boston, a night at Saskia’s typically begins with two hours of DJing, followed by drag performances by around a dozen performers and concluding with more dancing and music, according to Kalara. Though many of Saskia’s parties, which occur once every semester, have taken place in the Cabot Aquarium, the collective has more recently expanded to other venues such as Elks Lodge in Cambridge.
Frustrated with the lack of BGLTQ spaces on campus as well as BGLTQ party and drag spaces for those under 21 years old in Boston, Martinez founded Saskia’s with the history of the house music scene — an alternative, underground scene mostly consisting of black and Latinx gay men — in mind.
“Queer people deserve to have amazing music on an amazing sound system with amazing people dancing right next to them,” Martinez says. “They deserve to have a space where they can go and just throw everything to the wind.”
Saskia’s has intentionally centered around BGLTQ people and people of color, attempting to create a necessary space and audience for performers in that community at Harvard and in Greater Boston, according to Goggin, a performer and organizer at Saskia’s.
“What is supremely important to me for all spaces, but especially Saskia’s, is having a space that is explicitly and essentially at its core a safe place that is centered around and made for queer people, and women, and people of color, and queer people of color, and any targeted person under the sun — with a loose center around those who are the most marginalized,” Goggin says.
Saskia's is fundamentally not about Harvard. You can be and do whatever you want to. It just really became a space of healing and appreciation of the beauty of queerness for me in a visceral and real way.
The “empowering” and liberating nature of Saskia’s derives from the organization’s explicit service to the BGLTQ community and its place in the “underground,” detached from the University and beyond the University.
“Saskia’s is fundamentally not about Harvard,” Kalara says. “You can be and do whatever you want to. It just really became a space of healing and appreciation of the beauty of queerness for me in a visceral and real way.”
Goggin attested to the discomfort of performing in front of a majority cisgender, heterosexual audience — especially because they say their performance is intended for those “who aren’t safe in the outside world, who don’t have that space, particularly those at Harvard who don’t have those space.”
While Goggin believes that drag should ultimately be for everyone, they certainly acknowledge — and encourage others to acknowledge — the power structures at play in any drag performance space.
“You’re absolutely still welcome,” Goggin says. “But you have to acknowledge and be conscious of the fact that you have however many layers of privilege and the people the space is centered around don’t have those layers of privilege.”
As an inherently personal art form, drag is subject to the whims of its performers who have significant license in the messages they wish to convey. For some Harvard performers, drag serves as a way to explore their identity.
“I grew up in the American South. I was closeted for a lot of my childhood. I started coming out my senior year of high school, and I wasn’t out to my family at all when I started,” Goggin says.
For Goggin, time at Harvard has been a continual growing experience. Experimenting with drag has been a key part of that process.
“By my sophomore year of college, I started coming into conflict with my own gender identity and my own gender presentation. For a long time, I thought maleness was unsettling to me just because I didn’t like it socially or institutionally,” Goggin says. “I think for the longest time, I wrote off my discomfort as general discomfort with feeling implicated in patriarchy. I started dressing in a lot more of a fluid way. I was living with roommates who were very encouraging and validating.”
Reminiscing on their journey, Goggin smiles.
“I started crossdressing for myself and it felt good,” they say. “I wasn’t doing it very intentionally. I was literally doing it because it felt good.”
For others, drag’s position in challenging gender norms addresses ongoing conversations about structural inequities and to call in the marginalized.
I started crossdressing for myself and it felt good. I wasn't doing it very intentionally. I was literally doing it because it felt good.
Last year, RuPaul came under fire for justifying barring cisgender women as well as transgender women who have not fully transitioned from participating in the show, claiming that women’s participation in drag subverts the “irony” and “danger” of male performers shedding and rejecting their masculinity. In January, Drag Race Thailand cast its first-ever cisgender female competitor.
Many performers refuse to adhere to these expectations.
For performers like NancyBoi, drag is about examining structures with a critical eye and tearing down barriers.
“I like to look at gender through the lens of androgyny and the idea of not fitting on either side of the binary,” NancyBoi says. “So while I do wear wigs and do my nails and do makeup, I tend not to pad, since I like the aspects of maleness that is seen within femaleness and the blending of masculinity and femininity into an entirely new thing.”
In the wake of Harvard’s ongoing battle with exclusive organizations, most notably its remaining final clubs, drag, an artform built on inclusivity of identities, serves more than just performance or hobby; it’s about solidarity.
“As an art form, it’s very unique because when you keep in mind where it comes from and what it should do, in my opinion, drag is not just art for presentation,” Goggin says. “It’s community building.”
Navigating this type of performance within an institution as long-lived as Harvard brings about a special set of challenges and opportunities for performers. Performers recognize both the distinguished nature of Harvard’s physical spaces, while offering new interpretations on how to repurpose them. Dining halls and common rooms are often beautifully outfitted, but cannot always be easily reserved for late night events. Baby Satin, a student drag performer who asked The Crimson to only be identified by their drag name, says the University offers unique venues with potential.
“[Harvard] has many cool spaces. Especially because drag is so visual, it would be really cool if we could use the spaces in a more non-structured way,” Baby Satin says.
For some performers, it is not the issue of physical space, but rather affirmative social space that drag seeks to address. Goggin pushes back against the idea of inaccessible spaces on the campus social scene.
“I’m interested in spaces that are genuinely communal and what that means to me is the space is not owned by any one person,” they say. “It’s shared and it operates cooperatively.”
In certain enclaves, including ones as prominent as Adams House, students believe drag has taken on the role of fostering inclusivity. But navigating drag at Harvard continues to challenge students involved in the scene. “We play roles in negotiating institutions whether we like it or not, whether it’s intentional or not, whether it’s conscious or unconscious,” NancyBoi says.
The question remains whether drag, rooted in subverting and challenging norms, will ever become commonplace on campus.
“It should be mainstream, because engagement in drag teaches you how much power you have to shape the way people see you. And I think that power can be translated into other arenas,” Square says. “Your individual power is a reflection of collective power.”
Underground drag is so powerful because it's going against the mainstream, going against something which gives it strength and community which doesn't need validation from an institution.
Some performers, though, remain unconvinced that drag will, or even ought to, become mainstream as an art form. For these artists who have taken comfort in their drag shows, the unseen offers both intrigue and power.
“I think drag still lives in liminality and underground,” NancyBoi says. “I think that’s very evident here at Harvard.”
Baby Satin echoed the sentiment, asserting that drag’s ability to remain unseen unless sought out facilitates its subversiveness.
“Underground drag is so powerful because it’s going against the mainstream, going against something which gives it strength and community which doesn’t need validation from an institution,” Baby Satin says.
What these student performers can ultimately agree on is the important purpose that drag plays on campus in fostering inclusive spaces, particularly ones for the BGLTQ community.
“The heart of drag, and what distinguishes it as an art form, is that it does build queer community," Goggin says. “It’s supposed to call people in, who need a space, who need to see what is possible for them in terms of how they can exist in the world.”
—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Rick Li can be reached at email@example.com.