On the first night of December, a chill was in the air and the first snow was on its way. Inside the Ezra Stiles College dining hall, Yalies stayed warm as they listened to a holiday tune playing over the loud speakers. It could have been a scene from a high-school holiday pageant.
Until the drag troupe walked in.
As members of All The Kings Men, a professional Boston drag troupe, began their performance, the chorus of “Sleigh Ride” abruptly transitioned to the bass line of “Lady Marmalade.” Before long, the event in the dining hall had turned into Yale’s version of Moulin Rouge.
Co-sponsored by the LGBT Co-op, the Yale Gala, the Women’s Center and the Joint Events Funding Committee, last Saturday night’s 2007 Drag Ball kicked off Transgender Awareness Week at Yale. Now in its fifth year, Trans Week featured a wide range of academic and social events — including several movie screenings, panel discussions and lectures from experts — that focused on transgender issues as well as more general ones about gender identity.
While some program participants said Trans Week was effective in encouraging a sense of solidarity within the trans community, those with little exposure to “out” transgender people said they think the program was not sufficiently accessible.
Anna Wipfler ’09, the coordinator of the Drag Ball and Trans Week, said she modeled this year’s Trans Week on the original event from five years ago, which was conceived and organized by Loren Krywanczyk ’06. Yet while Wipfler said she hoped to reach out to audiences beyond the trans community, Krywanczyk said she designed the week primarily for members of the community and did not intend the week to turn into “Trans 101.”
“Ideally, Trans Week would be a time when trans people could talk about and hear about issues that are very dear to them,” she said.
Krywanczyk, who traveled from Brooklyn to participate in the program, moderated a Sunday talk at the Women’s Center entitled “Trans-on-Trans,” which focused on how transgender people engage in sexual relationships.
The ball, which gave Yalies and New Haven residents their first glimpse of the week-long program, featured professional performances, student acts and a dance party that saw nearly 50 percent of attendees dressed in drag. Among those sporting unorthodox attire were women wearing men’s ties and jackets, and male members of student punk-rock band The Sandy Gill Affair donning wigs and glitzy pink-and-purple dresses.
Wipfler said she was initially wary about starting a week of activism and socially conscious dialogue with an event that casts transgender people in a stereotypical light. But she said she changed her mind after realizing that the ball would highlight “gender fluidity and performance.”
“The Drag Ball is a fun way to look at gender issues and dynamics that anyone can relate to,” Wipfler said.
Rachel Schiff ’10, the queer-women’s coordinator at the Women’s Center, said the Sunday panel forced her to rethink using the word lesbian to express her sexual identity.
“It enlightened me further to the plight of many trans individuals who become ‘invisible’ in our system because they do not fall neatly into one gendered category,” she wrote in an e-mail. “[A]fter Trans Week, I think that any words such as bi, gay, dyke, fag, etc. often end up conforming to the very gender binary they are often trying to revolt against.”
A Wednesday panel discussion at the Law School entitled “Experiences in CT Transgender Advocacy” was led by lawyers, social activists and a Connecticut assembly representative Mike Lawlor. The discussion, which attracted several dozen attendees, touched on issues concerning trans-inclusive nondiscrimination legislation.
Many Trans Week events drew a mixture of Yale students and faculty and New Haven and Connecticut residents.
Tony Ferraiolo, a transgender man who lives in New Haven, said he was glad to have a rare opportunity to socialize with other transgender people.
“It’s important to connect with the community,” he said. “It is very hard to find trans guys who want to hang out.”
But for some Yale students who were approaching the question of what it means to be transgender for the first time, not having enough “Trans 101” events made the discussion inaccessible. Some said the need for more strictly informational events is particularly important because the campus has what Wipfler called a “notable lack of transgender undergraduates.”
Alejandro Bustillos ’11, who attended the Sunday panel, said that as someone without prior knowledge about gender identity, he did not find the discussion particularly valuable.
“I attended with a friend of mine, and we would have preferred to hear more about [the transgender panelists’] transitions from male to female and the questioning phase they went through,” he said. “How did they go about telling their parents and telling society? What is the experience of starting medical procedures and taking hormones?”
But students interviewed at Tuesday evening’s Trans Film Festival said the screenings provided sufficient education on what it means to be transgender. One film shown at the festival — “Toilet Training” — dealt with the difficulties that transgender people face when using public restrooms.
Edgar Diaz-Machado ’09, secretary for the Yale Co-Op, said the movie provided insight into transgender culture while “talking about things that non-transgender people wouldn’t think about.”
Another student documentary, entitled “Lipstick” and produced by Michael Nedelman ’08 and Amanda Glassman ’10 for their “Postwar Queer Avant-Garde Film” class, described the lives of transgender individuals living in Latin America.
Nedelman said he thinks that, regardless of the number of transgender undergraduates at Yale, Trans Week is important because it exposes some of the discrimination that transgender people face and creates a comfortable environment for discussion.
Scott Larson DIV ’08, who is a transgender man, said the fact that there are no openly transgender undergraduates does not prove that the Yale College community does not include any transgender students.
“The idea that you don’t need an event like this when there aren’t people connected to the issue is wrong,” he said. “Trans Week gives us space to come together and talk about the issues.”
On Saturday night, that space was the Ezra Stiles dining hall.
In one of the acts that All the Kings Men performed, a performer dressed as a macho, G.I. Joe-type male transformed into an attractive showgirl — costume and all — over the course of a two-minute striptease. The transformation was a visual representation of the gender fluidity that was a central component of the week, Schiff said.
As the show drew to an end to the strains of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Yalies prepared to tackle the issues, both on and off the dance floor.