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Senior capstone project plays with gender as Jumbo Drag Collective takes the stage

Drag performance has finally come to Tufts! After taking Associate Professor Kareem Khubchandani’s Critical Drag course in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program last semester, seniors Julian Hammond and Lee Romaker — or Aster R*sk and Ari Ola — have continued the class’s work and collaborated for a capstone project: the Jumbo Drag Collective. […]

Drag performance has finally come to Tufts! After taking Associate Professor Kareem Khubchandani’s Critical Drag course in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program last semester, seniors Julian Hammond and Lee Romaker — or Aster R*sk and Ari Ola — have continued the class’s work and collaborated for a capstone project: the Jumbo Drag Collective.

To spark interest in the organization, Romaker and Hammond hung flyers, contacted professors and spread the message through word of mouth. Luckily, about half of the Critical Drag class is participating. While the group has been meeting twice per week throughout the semester, its Tufts debut will be at a Trans Day of Visibility event run by Tufts University Social Collective and Tufts’ LGBT Center on Friday, March 31 in the Cohen Auditorium. In what they call “A Trans Day of Visibility Extravaganza,” performers from JDC will open for two queens, Raja and Kerri Colby.

In developing the Jumbo Drag Collective, Hammond and Romaker drew on many of the core values, practices and community norms that had been so meaningful in their Critical Drag course.

“It was just really exciting to be in an academic environment that was really about learning about queerness and topics like performance, anti-colonialism, anti-racism and gender performance through doing it — namely, not just reading theory, but simply doing it and practicing. So it was kind of like an artistic practice course, more so than a theory course,” Romaker, a JDC co-founder and women’s, gender and sexuality studies and community health double major, said.

Hammond, a women’s, gender and sexuality studies major and the other JDC co-founder, elaborated on why the Critical Drag course was an experience that they wanted to replicate.

“[The class] provided a place for community, a place for queer people to be with one another, share some things about themselves, maybe find some things about themselves,” Hammond said. “It was a bit of an oasis in the otherwise very product-based academic world that is Tufts.” 

Prior to the fall 2022 semester, Critical Drag was last offered in spring 2018. Aside from mirroring the Critical Drag class experience, Hammond and Romaker wanted to build a lasting drag community at Tufts so that eager and passionate students would not have to wait for the course to be offered in the future.

“Often for the senior capstone, you can write a research paper that’s 30–50 pages or you can do a project, like an art project, an activist project,” Romaker said. “We were just more interested in having something with a tangible product or something that could last rather than just a piece of research that then sits in archives.” 

Ellis Kocay, a senior studying sociology and a member of the Jumbo Drag Collective, shared what they have learned so far during Jumbo Drag Collective meetings. 

“We started with just talking about who we want to be, figuring out the name and pronouns we’d like to use in the JDC space. [We brainstormed] the vibe you want to bring and what your passion is, and then we got into stuff like design of costumes and makeup. And then we’re going to do some work on movement, lip syncing, dancing, all that good stuff that makes a performance, a performance,” Kocay said.

Another important aspect of drag performance that differentiates JDC from other Tufts performance groups is that members have much more control over the characters they play. Kocay elaborated further on the autonomy that drag provides.

“With a lot of other types of performance, you’re told how to be. The characters are created for you, and you have some artistic liberty for sure, but it’s way more rigid. So that’s been interesting, being able to write the script, choreograph [and] design the costumes. You really have control over every single aspect of your own performance, which is daunting but also great,” Kocay said.

The JDC has also introduced its members to the local drag community in Boston by promoting opportunities and resources such as skill tutorials on its Canvas page and Whatsapp group.

“There’s so many drag performers and big events that happen all the time, including a lot of drag kings. … I always thought drag was for drag queens, but there’s a really thriving subculture of drag kings in Boston,” Sage Malley, a senior studying anthropology and fellow Jumbo Drag Collective member, said.

Hammond added that one of their goals is to familiarize members with the Boston drag scene.

“I hope the [Tufts] bubble can be burst a little bit. I’m trying to instill that as best as I can [by] nudging the students who are participating to attend these shows and start to meet these people,” Hammond said.

A mission of the JDC is to foster a community-based, supportive environment that does not exhibit the more rigid, competitive qualities of a traditional academic environment.

“[I envision] something that is non-hierarchical, community run, mutually supportive,” Hammond said. “The framework for that doesn’t really exist in an academic institution slash business that is Tufts.”

Another goal of the JDC is to tear down drag stereotypes and perceptions that come from the media and a lack of drag understanding. While popular shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009–) only portray drag queens, there is much more to drag than magnifying femininity.

“We definitely have all of the super popular conceptions of drag through all the drag race shows, and being a drag queen is definitely more well known and popular. But there is also just a super rich history of drag king-ing that we can see historically,” Kocay said. “We think of femininity as something that’s a lot easier to lay up and perform. Whereas [with] masculinity, we have this conception that it’s super rigid, and it’s not super fun to play with and put on and stylize, but that’s definitely not the case.”

The JDC also aims to debunk the myth that drag is only about “female impersonation,” as this can be damaging rhetoric. Hammond emphasized that drag performance is a way they want to relay and demonstrate the theme that gender itself is a performance and a social construct.

“Growing up, being raised as a girl and having to perform femininity in order to survive in a cisgender-majority society, I think of the femininity that I put on [and] that I performed, for me it felt a little like drag,” Romaker said. “Some of the makeup that I forced myself to learn to fit in and to blend in for safety, I use now for drag. … I definitely pull from my experience as a transgender person.”

Kocay shared a similar experience.

“As someone who goes through their daily life as a transmasculine, genderqueer person, I’m always very considerate of the way I move and speak,” they said. “We go through our daily lives presenting our gender in a way that will make it palatable or legible to other people. But that doesn’t really matter when you’re doing drag because the whole point is that you’re trying to break the mold, make something creative. So, in that way, it’s super liberating and just fun.”

Because the JDC is in its infancy, it is not yet a TCU-recognized club and thus does not receive funding. Hammond and Romaker hope to use their time this semester to create the foundation and hand over the baton to younger members in the future.

“My favorite part has honestly just been getting to know the people and watching them grow as well,” Hammond said. “Where the class last semester was on day one versus the show, was just absolutely unbelievable, like so much growth and change in such a short amount of time.” 

As more and more anti-drag, anti-trans and anti-queer legislation come to fruition in many states, JDC members hope that their performance can be a rejection of these proposals and in its own way, a form of activism.

“Especially now, I think it’s important to be involved with drag communities and not only drag communities, but trans communities and trans activism because they go hand in hand,” Malley said.

Romaker offered their view on the core principles of drag. 

“Drag is sort of the excuse to use materials and technologies to be perceived how you wish you could be perceived,” they said. “There’s a lot of joy and a lot of fun in that, and a lot of fantasy in a really great way.” 

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