Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Friday, May 28, 2010

I feel pretty, and witty, and...queer: UC Irvine's Irvine Queers

by Rosa Vargas

“My hidden talent would be, I guess being a lesbian,” quips a female voice from the back of the room, the person the voice belongs to hidden behind the people sitting in front of her.
“Which means you can do what really well?” jokingly, suggestively, asks another girl to the amusement of everyone in the room.
Amid the laughs, Anabelle, who has been directing tonight’s meeting, yells out “This is not a dating service people!”
No, this is not a dating service, it is Irvine Queers. Irvine Queers, or IQ as its members call it, is an undergraduate student club at the University of California Irvine which caters to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and ally students of UCI. According to one of their pamphlets, the aim of IQ is “to provide a safe space for queer and ally students, education about queer issues, and opportunities for political participation.” For that purpose, Irvine Queers holds weekly meetings. This spring quarter, the meetings have been taking place on Tuesday nights at the Student Center on the UCI campus. These meetings are “a mixture of social, educational, and political activities.” On the agenda for tonight’s meeting? Project Rungay.
The last person in the room is done revealing her name, school year, major and hidden talent. Anabelle proceeds to move things on and asks that people divide into teams so Project Rungay can get started. Several of the members leave because they have things to prepare for the upcoming Drag Show that is being put up by IQ. After the commotion of hugs and farewells and see you’s there are only twelve of us left in the room, and somehow one group has only three members while the other has six. The three judges sit at the front of the room and give the group the task: design an outfit with newspapers and flyers. The groups are given tape, several copies of The New U, and flyers; some of which announce the OMG (Oh My Gender): a Drag Show event while others advertise the Queer Culture Festival. I am in the six-person group; we have chosen our model and proceed to dress him up. Turns out we are not a very coherent group: someone put a skirt on him; someone else put a peacock tail while I added epaulets and a long braided tail. Someone else puts two cones on his chest and we all laugh at his new, big, pointy boobs. Anabelle makes a pharaoh style headdress, complete with a snake rising from it. She crowns our model with it.
“What was that Egyptian queen’s name?” asks Anabelle
“Yes! You are Queerpatra!” Anabelle tells the model.

Anabelle Vo is a second-year undergraduate student at UCI and the Social Chair of Irvine Queers. As social chair, Anabelle gives herself the task of “mak[ing] everyone feel welcome when they first step foot inside IQ.” Her desire to run for social chair grew out of her own experience in joining IQ. “I am not the most social person,” she claims, “I felt very shy the first time I came here.” Now, as social chair, Anabelle tries to make IQ welcoming to people who might be as shy as she was, “most people […], they are not quiet by choice and they are not lonely by choice, you know. So I try making the breaking into the club a little bit easier.” As she speaks, Anabelle twists and arranges pipe cleaners into the outline of a cartoonish little chubby human body, with short arms and short legs, its head a perfect circle. She takes a pipe cleaner and loops it around a side of the circular head, leaving part of it extending outwards, the head is no longer an O, it is now a capital Q. Anabelle just made a Qu Person. Qu Person is something of the mascot of Irvine Queers. It appears on their website, and it is the Qu Person that you see on IQ’s Facebook profile picture. In fact, Qu Person has a Facebook page of its own: its activities? Irvine Queers, and one of its favorite movies is Zoolander. The people in the room tonight take a moment away from their own crafts to admire Anabelle’s Qu Person, then go back to their own Converse decorating, beading, coloring, and button making. There was a lot of arts-and-crafts material left over from the past Saturday’s Queer Culture Festival, so this Tuesday the week’s meeting was an arts-and-crafts night. Besides providing left over materials with which to make crafts with at tonight’s IQ meeting, the Queer Culture Festival, which took place on May 15th at UCI’s Phoenix Grill, also provided a day of socializing, fun, emotions, and community. In a flier that announces Irvine Queer’s events, the Queer Culture Festival is described as “activities and performances, arts and crafts and student art galleries, skill-sharing and ‘talentless’ shows.” The shows and performances, however, were far from “talentless.” Towards the end of the event, which was scheduled to end at 10pm, there was an open mic. Several people went on stage to read out their poetry, Anabelle did a monologue in which she talked about the women in her life throughout the years. At one point, a girl was playing the guitar, singing. The lighting was dim, blackness peeked in through the windows, the stage glowed yellow-orange. There were some couples in the audience holding hands or with their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders. “Sophie and I are gay together…,” the lyrics filled the room with the tale of a girl who had hope for happiness now that she was announcing to the world that Sophie and she were gay together. All eyes were fixed on the siren with the guitar and the bright green tank top, when she finished her song, all hands clapped in unison; together.

It is now time for the judges to evaluate the impromptu outfits we have designed. The two models are standing next to each other ready to walk on the runway, which in this case is the open space in the middle of the room. The other group’s model goes first. He is wearing a dress made out entirely of OMG: A Drag Show posters that looks nothing at all like an impromptu dress. In fact “thought-out” would be the best word to describe it. To make matters more worrisome for our team, the model, Chris, can walk! He walks up to the judges and back with as much style as Tyra Banks. He even strikes a few poses, complete with a coquettish, dimpled smile. His name is Cristobal Escobar Marin; he is a fourth year undergraduate student and has been in Irvine Queers for almost two years. For him, IQ is a place that, particularly in a time when he was coming out, “help[ed] [him] be more comfortable with being gay.” Indeed, this comfort he has with himself is so palpable in him; he is standing there, wearing a paper dress that has been taped together over his bare torso and purple jeans, and he looks happy, and regal. For a moment I think that I would want to wear the dress he is wearing, I would buy it. So, he is a good model through and through: he has the walk, and he sells.
He can also work and audience. Chris was one of the performers in the OMG: A Drag Show that was put up by IQ on May 13th. The drag show took place in HIB 100, one of UCI’s Humanities lecture halls. The hall seats three-hundred and forty five; the night of the drag show about two thirds of the seats are filled. I overhear one of the performers and IQ member say that they weren’t expecting so many people. As people settled into their seats, pre-recorded voices, the kind one would expect to hear at a mall or airport or train station, chime in a monotone drone “please be on alert of suspicious looking men and women. For your safety, security measures have been taken…” Chris performed twice in the Drag Show. The first time he was wearing leopard print high heeled shoes and he stripped until he was left with nothing but the shoes and spandex short shorts. He danced around the stage, a strip tease. He brought out a whip and wielded it as the audience cheered and whistled. His second performance was less risqué. He was in drag, sporting a short white cocktail dress, still wearing the leopard print high heeled shoes. The lights were dimmed. “I was five and he was six, we rode on horses made of sticks, he wore black and I wore white…” Nancy Sinatra’s voice sang while Chris gracefully moved on the stage, his movement expressing sorrow. There was no coquetry in his face this time, no playfulness. He twists and turns and lies down on the stage floor. The audience is quiet. “…baby shot me down,” Chris lies still on the ground, shot down. The audience comes out of the trance and claps and cheers.
Anabelle also performed in the Show. She did a number in which she was in drag, wearing baggy jeans, a hoodie, and a baseball call in the fashion of any MTV worthy rapper; which is what she was, a rapper. After her rap and while the next performers were readying themselves, Anabelle appeared back on stage wearing a pink dress, her painted on mustache and beard still on her face. She walked about and twirled around as she sang out acapella “I feel pretty, I feel pretty and witty and…queer,” people laughed and clapped and cheered, “and I pity any girl who isn’t me this year.” The rest of the show continued on such note, fun. By the end however, the mood became serious. A slide show showing names and dates of individuals who had been victimized, some even murdered apparently for being transgender flashes on the screen. One of the performers reminds the audience that the profits from the night’s donations will be used to help the medical bill of a trans male student in California State University Long Beach who was attacked in a campus bathroom this past April 15th , his attacker had carved the word “it” on his chest. The victim had been hospitalized, however he didn’t have medical insurance and now had to pay the bill, the audience’s donations would help him pay.
This mixture of fun and seriousness of the Drag Show attests to the broad area that Irvine Queers encompasses as a club. “There’s not necessarily like a ton of groups [at UCI]. Like some schools that have […] larger involvement and bigger queer populations […] will have like really active groups; will have a political group, will have like an ally-focused group, will have the social group, you know. And each club will have that as its focus. IQ has tried to fulfill all of those things as best they can,” stated Emily Steelhammer, a fourth year student and Chair of the Board of IQ. However, Emily also declared that in IQ there is definitely a focus on being a social group, “it usually comes down to initially things social because that’s what brings people in and that’s the number one thing that people who know they are LGBT and are ready to be in the community need. They need the opportunity to be social.” Emily knows of this need to be social from personal experience. “I knew that of I was going to be […] gay, if I was going to be in the LGBT community, I had to go and be in the LGBT community.” for her, joining Irvine Queers offered her that opportunity to be in the queer community. And by community, Emily means “not just people around you but, like, cohesion and support.” Which is also what Anabelle has found in Irvine Queers, “a community to stand behind you because, you know, the world is a hateful place sometimes, you need to know that there are people out there who support you and are here for you if you need anything like emotional support.”

Now it is our model’s turn to walk the runway. He moves slowly, the skirt only allows him to take small steps. He moves carefully, the epaulets and his headdress could come off if his movements are too sudden, and the skirt could rip if his stride is too wide. He manages to strike a pose once he is directly in front of the judges. Finally both models have walked, now the groups have to explain their outfits. Our group tells them of Queerpatra, and that we aimed for an outfit that would show multiculturalism and was Lady Gaga inspired. Judging form their faces, the judges aren’t buying it. They deliberate. Meanwhile some of us seat on the tables or chairs, others stand or lean against walls. The two models are standing at what would be the foot of the runway. The judges arrive at a decision, they call the models forth. They say they like the concept of our outfit. They like that we incorporated the idea of multiculturalism into it. They like that it’s crazy and fun. One of the judges says the protruding boobs of our outfit disturb her. They like the other team’s outfit too. They like that it’s well put together. They like the detailing of it. It was a hard decision, they say. The other team wins. Everybody in the room claps. We are not disappointed that we lost, we had fun. Anabelle has made a halo out of newspaper pages, she takes one of the cones that would have been our model’s right boob had it been bigger and attaches it to her halo. She puts the concoction on her head, “I’m a unicorn!” She trots around, laughing, “I’m a unicorn!”

Irvine Queers is not just a social place. “Not just socializing for the sake of socializing. But people who share the same interests, wanna fight for the same rights, and yes, emotional support. So, that’s what I treasure the most about this club,” said Anabelle. “there are people here who are just good people, it’s nice to get to know them […] it’s an entire community that you never thought you would get.”

Reporting Log:

-Observation of all 6 meetings attended
-Observation of Drag Show and Queer Culture Fest
-Interview with Emily Steelhammer, about 20 minutes
-Interview with Cristobal Escobar, about 10 minutes
-Interview with Anabelle Vo, about 10 minutes
-Irvine Queers website
-Irvine Queers’ and Qu Person’s Facebook page
-three fliers handed out by IQ about IQ


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