November 01, 2007

trans = robot drag?

This post is just to start a conversation because I don't know what to think about an event about which I've been seeing a lot of publicity. I was not sure whether I could post the publicity below but upon a google search, I saw that the event promoters have scattered the internet with the same kind of publicity so I figure they will only be happy that I pasted it.

Anyhow... what do folks think about calling a dance the "trans-formers" dance and then saying there is a drag theme?

It seems to me that even though drag can be liberating and educational for everyone to get a chance to try something new or to see what it feels like to walk down the street with a non-mainstream-approved gender presentation, it is damaging to trans folks when the entire trans umbrella is associated with "just drag." Drag kings, drag queens, and other drag performers are part of trans communities, and often part of lesbian and gay communities as well, but not all trans folks are doing drag. In fact, many trans folks are doing the gender that they have experienced internally throughout their lives. Does implying that "trans = drag" make the whole trans umbrella seem silly, fun, overdone, and "not real." I don't think that drag is always silly, but it is certainly not always serious. Drag is fun and awesome but I'm not sure why it's attached specifically to "trans" folks only, or to all trans folks.

In addition, the not-quite-human portrayal of trans folks (eg transformer robots) seems somewhat problematic. Trans folks are often portrayed as not quite real or natural. In a way, like monsters. While Susan Stryker tried to take back the image of the monster for trans people, I am not sure we are yet to a point where I like non-trans folks associating trans folks with monsters, robots, or other not-quite-humans.

I am not sure if this feeling of awkwardness clouds my ability to properly read this dance ad below so please, read it, let me know what you think. Does it look like just a fun party or some kind of exploitation or exotification to you? I am not trying to accuse the people throwing the party of anything in particular at this point - I don't even know them. For all I know, this event (and indeed all of the events related to this "theme" of "gender non-conforming" are organized by a group of mostly trans folks, or non-trans folks with a lot of trans input, although I never thought of "gender non-conforming" as a "theme" before.) If you are one of the organizers, I hope you don't feel attacked if you are reading this post, but that you feel that it is an invitation to dialog. Please, post what you are thinking when you name and publicize this event. Tell me why I should go, and why I should not feel hurt by these words.

I know that I am often personally uncomfortable at "drag" events because unless it's people I really know, I don't know what to do or wear. I know that people often expect me to "pretend" to be something that I actually am. And it's awkward.

Here is the ad:

16th Annual Outlaw Dance: "TRANS-formers"
Saturday Nov. 3 9pm-1am

Come join us for Lambda's 16th Annual Outlaw Dance.

In keeping with our gender non-conforming theme for the year, we'll be
having a drag theme. Theme-dress is encouraged but by no means
necessary. There will be a drag contest, with prizes for Best Boy and
Best Girl!

FREE admission (21+) and open bar.

WHEN: Saturday, November 3, 9:00 pm – 1:00 am
WHERE: Ropes-Gray, Pound Hall, Harvard Law School

Featuring DJ D'hana Perry, Co-producer and DJ of a monthly queer dance
night called The Neighborhood (

Have I mentioned that I love the transformers? Here is an awesome transformers pic:


emily0 said...

1. So. Awkward. I got that and was like, OMG NOW I CAN HAS MASCOT TOO? "Move over, Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians! It's not just for Indians anymore."

Hey, in other news, next year I'm going to go to Halloween festivals dressed like a bisexual! ... wut?

Yeah so, uh, drag idea SUCKS. Thanks a lot, Law School, for being as insightful as your parties usually are. I remember the days going there and it was like, "Uh girls are gay too wuuuttt?" Course, that was back when Clinton were presnident-erect.

2. Also, can you please show me that movie cos everyone seen it but me and now I are stupid and don't know what the world is about. Apparently. Says everyone I know or have ever met.

Seriously, I'm being fired from being alive for not having seen the Transformers movie and I can't take the peer pressure anymore so can I borrow it and you and the person you like to fuck (that's the latest word on the street for a spouse)? Soon? Call me? You can email me, like, and stuff.

icarus said...

i think it's awkward that there are prizes for "Best Boy and
Best Girl."

HLS said...

As an organizer of the party, let me begin by apologizing to anyone offended by the name of the dance. That was certainly not our intent.

HLS Lambda is an organization dedicated to serving the queer community at Harvard Law School. This year’s board decided to devote the year to discussing gender non-conformity and particularly transgendered identity. There are many people who know nothing about transgendered identity, even within the queer community, and we plan to help educate our campus with a “Trans 101” panel. For the first time in recent memory, we will be taking a hard look at the legal, social, and political issues facing transgendered individuals, culminating in a two-day conference in the spring. We are hoping to bring in legal practitioners and political advocates from across the country to debate and discuss the current status of the transgender movement. We take our responsibilities seriously, and I assure you that we are not exploiting the transgendered community for the sake of one dance.

Lambda hosts the Outlaw dance for Boston’s LGBT student community every fall. It is meant to be an event in which students and recent graduates can come together to celebrate in a safe and supporting environment. We felt that a drag-themed event would be a fun way to encourage broader participation in thinking about gender, hopefully leading to greater participation in our more serious events. Not all individuals in drag are transgendered and not all transgendered people wear drag, and the title is a bit forced by blending the distinct concepts of gender performance and transgender identity. However, the name was meant to be a good-natured pun on performance that transcends the gender binary, as well as a dig at the entirely masculine cast of characters in the recent summer blockbuster. We came up with the title in good fun, and did not intend any malice or to exploit the trans community. While intent cannot always mitigate impact, I for one never thought that anyone would take seriously any association between transgendered individuals and robots--it is, after all, just a pun.

I hope this explanation answers your questions, and I hope that you ultimately decide to come to the dance. If you do, you should feel free to wear whatever you want, whether or not that’s drag, however defined.

icarus said...

hi HLS!

thanks for commenting! i think that your comment is helpful in clarifying the situation a bit, and i'm very happy to hear that you are working to make Lambda more trans-friendly.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for dropping by quench. Like I said, I was just posting my initial thoughts and I very much appreciate your willingness to post about your thoughts and motivations around planning the dance.

I do think that intent is relevant and I'm glad that you shared yours. Like I said, my intent is just to start a conversation.

I think that it is great that this dance is causing conversations that cause including both you and me to have these kinds of conversations. I think learning from each other's actions, explanations, and intents is part of what makes us all learn from a year dedicated to discussing and learning about transgender and gender non-conforming identity (and by extension, I am assuming you are looking at life in general.)

Sometimes the hardest part of open discussion and learning when people actually care about a topic is that people have reactions that are both emotional and logical.

I am glad you are having these events and personally, I will try to attend as many as I can. I hope this is an opportunity to learn from each other.

Transformers are approximately my favorite show, action figure, or idea ever so I can definitely see how it would make an awesome dance theme. I still feel a little uncomfortable with the link between trans people with robots and drag as I first read it in the advertisement. I will try to think and draw out more of what I am talking about but I am very glad that you came by and posted what you were thinking.

Em0 -

Transformers was originally a TV show, not a movie. I have never seen the movie (although I would be happy to see it with you). I do currently have posession of a copy of several seasons of Voltron if you are interested. I think we need to get our hands on both the Transformers cartoon and the movie. I bet spork has it. Spork?

I am also interested in your comment about the mascot idea. Can you explain a little more about the feeling of being a mascot. To me, it's the same general exploitation/being used/exotification thing (at least as it relates to this context). Is that what you are thinking too?

Sorry for the ridiculously long comment,

Anonymous said...

Oh, one other thing HLS -

In the Boston area, I more often hear people using the word "transgender" than "transgendered." It's partly an age thing, because I am mostly around people under 40, but also a geography thing. I have no idea what your background is, but at some point I want to start a conversation about the use of the "ed" and who uses it and who doesn't. Perhaps this requires another post...

I don't know if you regularly read quench or if you have ideas the word but I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic because I am not sure that there is a huge diversity of word use among our most common writers/commenters here, but I know there are others involved with trans communities, like yourself, who prefer the "ed" ending.


Sarah said...

As a trans identifying person at HLS who is somewhat involved in Lambda (as co-chair of the upcoming conference) but was not involved in decision making around the dance, I want to build on the points made by the initial poster, respond to Lambda’s response to the blog, and offer some suggestions to my fellow HLSers in Lambda. I am posting this on the blog because I think it important that these conversations are transparent and public, and because I invite the feedback and commentary of people outside lambda and the law school.

1) I think the blogger's point (or question) about whether and to what extent trans voices were part of the decision making and input around the dance "theme" and advertisements is a critical issue. If trans peoples' input wasn’t involved (and I don’t know if it was or not), it seems honest and important to own up to that and reflect on the implications of that, particularly given the history of transphobia both outside and within lgbtq communities. If trans people had been included, perhaps there might have been more sensitivity and critical reflection about the implications of calling gender nonconformity the year's "theme" and then reducing that theme to drag for the purposes of the dance.

2) It seems as though it is for others to decide whether this dance ends up being exloitative and or oppressive to trans people. Lambda can only speaks to its intent but not to the actual effect.

3) Talking about "educating our campus" seems somewhat patronizing. It may be the case that we, as LGBTQ people trying to deal with and incorporate trans issues in our agendas need to be educated as much as anyone else. It seems worthwhile to acknowledge this. At the same time, the very fact that many people, lgbtq or not, lack real knowledge and/or understanding of what trans is seems like it makes this drag theme more not less problematic by reinforcing rather than undermining commonly held stereotypes and misunderstandings. As a person who has recently taken on trans (specifically “genderqueer”) as a social and political identity, I have been coming to terms with my own lack of awareness and misunderstanding of what it means to “be” trans. Perhaps it is hard for us as law students to acknowledge our ignorance; it is crucial that we do.

4) why "transgendered" and not "transgender" or "trans?"

Overall, it is important for lambda to be humble, open to criticism, own its mistakes, and get educated as opposed (or at least in addition) to educating others. We should challenge ourselves to reflect on our own positionality and the long history of mostly white lesbian and gay identified people speaking for, over, and about trans people and their concerns. I think lambda can learn important lessons from this experience without having to feel defensive. We should make sure we apply these lessons to the organizing of future events, and be really attuned to the extent to which our own identities, whatever they might be, privilege us. This same concern exists for me in my capacity as co-chair of the conference as we struggle to ensure that poor people, people of color, and non-lawyers are represented and their struggles prioritized.

Thanks to the blogger for your intial post and to lambda for being willing to listen and engage.


emily0 said...


Silly monkey, of course it were bestest tevillizion show EVAR! I used to beat up my friends so I could play Optimus Prime. I thought, however, you were referring to the recent film which nearly everyone I interact with not-in-my-house seems to watch obsessively. Either way, I'm game! I loves them!

You wrote: "I am also interested in your comment about the mascot idea. Can you explain a little more about the feeling of being a mascot. To me, it's the same general exploitation/being used/exotification thing (at least as it relates to this context). Is that what you are thinking too?"

Sorry, it were very very late when I wrote that (and I'm tired now, as you can tell by my highly eccentric writing patterns).

Yes. I was thinking, "Wow, this is just like when I lived in Oberlin and I realised there was actually a nightmarish, hideously offensive sports icon about Native Americans!"

Only I was more annoyed because it was the Law School, and I've been to those parties for a looong time and they are always full of students from all over campus and I knew people would be like, "O RLY? Get over it! - cum - You're kidding LOL." Only in real life speak and not intarwubs mockery speak.

Also, that was a Latin affix and affectation there, not a reference to boymilk. (Ewww I just said boymilk.)

What bothered me was being a theme. I know drag is not = transgenderism, but it is AWKWARD when paired with the name Transformers. I'm sorry, cogent arguments by HLS don't dissuade me of the general sensation that the linkage was deliberate. I mean, it's subtle as a brickbat ennit?

Drag could be a blast. I personally think the Best Boy and Best Girl awards are, as the lovely Quenchista noted, AWKWARD, but then again I am a militant leftist transdyke so perhaps I'm not full of fun but rather choler and a desire to watch horror films.

In one sense, it's sort of brilliant if it wasn't a dance - the whole parading gender as a construct is historically what queers do well, and it's a great site for criticism and awareness. Who makes the best women by our modern American standards? Men in drag. The twiggy, breastless look of fashion is easily obtained by men.

So, *shrug*. I don't want to be a wet blanket. I just know what I felt when I saw that invite in my mailbox.

emily0 said...

Also I didn't directly answer the question posed by WTTO, which is that I felt like an unpleasantly exotic other. I was not welcome at the dance because I was an actual transsexual and the theme of the dance was, um, me. People dressing in inappropriate-to-gender outfits. To "play" girl/boy.

It was just like the Cleveland Indians, which was admittedly way more offensive and I seriously considered breaking some local windows and beating up people wearing those shirts. (But I did not.) I mean, pshyaaaah, imagine if there was the Kentucky Jim Crows and the mascot was a noble negro? Or there was a Terrytown Jews, and the mascot was a big-nosed rich man in gold chains? I mean, seriously, wtf!

God damn those sports icons boil my blood. Seriously, I'm getting tissues to wipe the foam off my mouth. SO ANGRY.

So yeah. That's what I felt, and the flashpan of feeling that way about other things doesn't help.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sarah and Em0 for sharing your feelings. You are helping me to be able to articulate beyond my initial "ick" and deepening the discussion a lot.


Anonymous said...

PS. You would be a very dirty wet blanket.

emily0 said...

Saucy, WTTO! Saucy!

icarus said...

this discussion is really interesting. i feel like i'm learning a lot.

HLS poster - if you're still around, i'd be interested to hear your responses to these comments.

rickard said...

As a genderqueer member of the Lambda board, and one of the people who did contribute to the decision-making on the dance and its publicity, I apologize for the awkwardness of our title and the message it tends to convey. That was definitely not our intent, but we should have been more thoughtful about the impact our poster has on those who see it. It’s important that we as members of Lambda take this opportunity to educate ourselves more about the impact that our decisions have on various members and subsets of the queer community. Events that are publicized to the public are the only occasions when the greater community provides feedback to our organization, and it is crucial that we take that feedback and incorporate it into all of our events, discussions, and the organization as a whole. I know I, for one, have learned from this experience. I want to re-iterate thanks to everyone who is contributing to this discussion.

The spirit of the event is primarily one of just a really big party, for all members of the queer community and their friends to enjoy. The drag theme is a small part of that, and I hope people will take advantage of the theme to their own comfort level. Gender performance is something everyone participates in every day, and this dance is an opportunity for people to be conscious of that performance, ideally by dressing in a way that challenges the norms and stereotypes of either gender – regardless of how you identify in daily life. I want to encourage everyone to come, as it is a completely free event and a place where a lot of queer folks will be having a good time. I’m not sure if I’ll be in masculine or feminine attire, but if we find each other, I’m eager to talk to people in person about the event and its theme.

Cameron said...

I'm feeling somewhat old here-- the Transformers were *toys* before they were a cartoon show, before they were a movie.... and they were more for kids my little sister's age than me. Me? I played with Adventure People (anyone remember those?!). I just felt the need to share.

And admittedly, in my household, we all had a joke about me and the transformers (I'm a transguy and our upstairs neighbors knew me prior to transition). So I get the goofiness of the theme even if it is, as everyone seems to agree, awkward to come across when you don't know how others may be reading it or through what kind of conversation it was decided upon.

I'm glad folks at Lambda are here, and that you're having a conference at the end of the year. I appeciated the comments about the complexities of fostering trans awareness in a wider (school or work, etc) context when even within LGBTQ contexts there is still some work to do.

Can I just say, I have never understood why the "ed" at the end of transgender got dropped, and I've never seen an explanation that didn't just say "don't do it. It isn't necessary." I'd love a fuller explanation-- it's been bugging me for several years now! I think part of my confusion comes from my habitual use of "gendered" as a verb, so transgendered always sounded to me like "gendered in a trans way." But then someone came along and turned it into a noun, and nouns can feel more restrictive to me, depending on context. So if there's some more history or logic to be shared on this, I'd be curious to hear it.

icarus said...

i just wanted to make sure that HLS Lambda people (and anyone else who is interested) know about the Harvard Trans Task Force (TTF). TTF is open to Harvard students, faculty and staff, and works to promote trans rights on campus and beyond. it's great, and i hope people who might not have heard of it will choose to get involved!

Anonymous said...

I heard from friends that your party was a huge hit! I hope you let us (and the Harvard Trans Task Force, of course), know when this conference is coming up.

I'd be happy to post a couple of guest-posts about it if anyone from Lambda is interested.


rickard said...

That would be fantastic, WTTO, thanks.

The dance was a success, thanks to everyone who braved the hurricane.

We will definitely be sending information about the conference far and wide, but right now, we know that it will be on February 29 and March 1, 2008 (Leap Year!), and will be open to the public.

rickard said...

We have the website for this year's Harvard Lambda Legal Advocacy Conference: TransLaw.

All are welcome to attend.

rickard said...

Harvard Law School Lambda invites you to:
The Spring 2008 HaLLA Conference: TransLaw
February 29 - March 1, 2008 - Harvard Law School

The third annual Harvard Lambda Legal Advocacy (HaLLA) Conference will examine the interaction of transgender communities and the law. The panelists, leading activists, advocates and academics from around the country, will speak on topics including state and private violence, state regulation of gender including sex-segregated public facilities, discrimination in the realms of health care and employment, and trans youth and families.

Please visit our website at for more information.
Registration is free and all are welcome.

icarus said...

everyone should check this out! i know that at least one Quench blogger will be featured at the conference. ;-)