Deb Ball. The annual all-campus party usually involves glitter, a live band and outfits that may experiment with gender presentation, but some non-binary and transgender Kenyon students have concerns with how the “tradition” of the event affects some members of their community, according to Ez Raider-Roth ’19, a co-manager of Unity House.
Critics say some cisgender students trivialize alternate gender presentations by “cross-dressing,” a derogatory term for dressing as someone of another gender, usually as a joke, for the event. The party, hosted by Peeps O’ Kenyon (PEEPS) every fall, took place on Sept. 30 this year. The Facebook event for the party stated the event meant to “provide a space where everyone has the FREEDOM TO DRESS HOWEVER THE F—K THEY WANT” and that the event was not “cross-dressing” themed. The announcement also read that “trivializing the struggles of our trans or gender non-conforming friends is not the intent of the ball.”
“It’s not that we don’t want to go to Deb Ball, we all want to go to Deb Ball, what a cool f—ing idea … of being able to gender-express however you want,” Raider-Roth, who identifies as non-binary, gender void and transgender, said. “But when I go, I feel unsafe,” they said.
Cat March ’19 expressed similar concerns in a post about the party, which was published on Sept. 29 on the campus blog The Thrill. March wrote that “people who don’t take the time to read the PEEPS invite/posters, people who don’t give a crap about trans students, or people who think that they can be cis and experiment with gender in a non-hurtful way are still going to show up to the party wearing outfits (a.k.a costumes) without having experienced the violence that comes with gender non-conformity.” March declined to be interviewed after a conversation with this reporter.
Raider-Roth and James Lituchy ’20, the managers of Unity House, organized a discussion about the event during the weekly Unity House meeting following Deb Ball. Two members of the PEEPS, Walter Michalski ’19 and George Costanzo ’19, attended. Around 20 participants in the discussion were given the opportunity to share their concerns about the event and offered the PEEPS representatives a chance to respond. Participants also brainstormed potential ways to make the event more inclusive.
Raider-Roth said the meeting was emotional for some students. Yet at the same time, they said they “wanted to make sure the [meeting] environment was as respectful and as inclusive as possible,” asserting that the intention of the event was not to place blame or find fault with any particular organization.
Costanzo said it did not seem like the meeting was criticizing PEEPs and its members. He said that hearing from people at the meeting illuminated how they experienced the party.
“I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to not feel like there is a place for you at something like Deb Ball just because people are dressing in certain ways,” Costanzo said. He emphasized that Deb Ball was about the freedom to express yourself, a purpose which PEEPS co-presidents Ellie Manos ’18 and Alex Bennett ’18 also mentioned in an interview about the event.
Manos said the PEEPS discussed the issue at their meeting on Oct. 2 as well. She said that the group seemed to be “on the same page” about “whatever [the PEEPS] can do to make sure the true intention of Deb Ball, that message gets across, and that people are respectful and gentle towards … the way people do Deb Ball.” Bennett said that there were non-binary and trans students in PEEPS.
Not everyone in the non-binary/trans community at Kenyon has the same concerns about Deb Ball. “I think it doesn’t have to be wrong for a cis person to dress in drag if it’s done with the right intentions and appreciation of the art form,” Em Green ’18 said. Green identifies as transmasculine. “It’s when it’s treated as a joke, then it’s problematic and there are a lot of people on this campus who understand that and there are also people who don’t,” he said.
Both Raider-Roth and Lituchy said they did not want to cancel Deb Ball. Lituchy, who identifies as trans and agender, said they hoped to work with PEEPS going forward on the event.
Based on the meeting Lituchy said they didn’t think anything specific was decided about how the event will proceed. Raider-Roth emphasized that the effort to make the event more inclusive had to come from all groups involved because they felt it was not the responsibility of the queer community to educate the campus about trans and non-binary issues.
Costanzo, Manos and Bennett said the PEEPS wanted to find ways to improve respectful participation surrounding the event and it was their goal to make sure all party attendees felt safe and comfortable.
Raider-Roth emphasized that they felt trans and non-binary students wanted to have their differences recgonized and celebrated while being a “normal” part of campus.
“Whenever there’s a queer person walking into a party, it’s like ‘that’s the queer person,’ unless it’s like a queer party, and then everyone’s queer. So you’re either the stranger, or part of your community,” Raider-Roth said.
They said, “that’s the dichotomy I think that exists, that really needs to be broken down, that’s perpetrated by events like this, that kind of celebrate the systemic transphobia on this campus.”