*Drag names used for anonymity.

In her stilettos and a form-fitting black dress with leopard print, professional drag queen Kylie Minono opened the 23rd annual Drag Ball with a performance of Alicia Keys’ “Girl On Fire.” Minono, who emceed last year’s Drag Ball, used comedy to convey the importance of drag and its historical importance in the LGBTQIA+ community.

Photos by Brooklynn White.

Celebrating queerness since 1995, the Oakes College Drag Ball has evolved into more than a dance. Over the years, it has become a space where queer students can find solace in their community and express themselves beyond traditional gender norms.

“I want to defy those stereotypes surrounding masculinity and push back against the idea that I have to be masculine all the time,” said Sierra Mantoya*, a third-year at UCSC and performer in Drag Ball.

This year’s theme was “Pajama Party Panic,” though most attendees opted for their most glamorous ensembles.

With more than 100 students tightly packed into the Oakes Learning Center (OLC), the dance floor was abound with energy as attendees danced to DJ AD’s set, which accompanied the routines. The Fall Out Girls opened the show with a performance of Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark.”

With a rich history rooted in culture and liberation, drag developed to fit the needs of a dynamic community. Emerging in the 19th century, drag culture gained traction with the boom of underground gay bars and intensifying police harassment in the 20th century.

Drag queens of color were pivotal in the Stonewall Riots of 1969, a catalyst of the modern queer liberation movement, and Tim Curry made headlines in 1975 when he performed drag as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” RuPaul Charles, creator and host of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” is credited with making drag culture mainstream in the 21st century.

While some might associate drag with a performer’s gender identity, the LGBTQIA+ community views it as an expressive performance meant to push against gender-challenging barriers, said third-year Skye McIntyre Blomdal.

“Drag, as an art of performing gender, is [a] special event that you don’t get to see a lot of,” McIntyre Blomdal said.

Eight student leaders from Oakes and Rachel Carson College, with the help of their advisers, began planning Drag Ball in the fall. Adan Camacho, a neighborhood assistant from Oakes, was one of this year’s organizers.

“To me, the most important part of [planning] the event was creating a space for LGBTQIA+ students to come together and exposing others to the beauty of our culture,” Camacho said.

Sierra Mantoya, who won the competition last year, helped encourage her fellow queen Estrella Mantoya to take the stage. In an homage to Sierra, who helped her get ready, Estrella won the Drag Ball competition this year with an engaging and energetic performance of RuPaul’s “Call Me Mother.”

In the spirit of tradition, and to educate attendees about different aspects of drag culture, the organizing team also put together informational posters in a separate room of the OLC. Among the four posters, one was centered on the history of drag by connecting representations of drag in the media. Another poster highlighted specific issues that transgender women of color face.

According to one poster, 38 percent of Black transgender women have been sexually harassed by law enforcement and 23 percent of Latinx transgender women have been refused medical care since 2011. Most poignantly, one of the posters called attention to the courageous actions of Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman who performed drag, in the Stonewall Riots.

“Creating visibility is so important, I was really happy to see people being exposed to issues they might not otherwise know about,” said Cristian Romero, a third-year who attended Drag Ball for the first time this year.

Given the lack of events geared toward the LGBTQIA+ community, aside from programs put on by the Cantú Queer Center, queer students on campus have taken it upon themselves to provide welcoming spaces for their community.

“If we don’t create a space for ourselves, who else is going to do it?” Romero said.