First published in Feb. 2016
UW-Eau Claire will host the 6th annual Fire Ball drag show extravaganza in the Davies Center Ojibwe Ballroom on Feb. 24 and 25. The event is one of the university’s largest and presents a significant opportunity for students to be meaningfully involved in an LGBTQ event on campus.
The drag ball will feature performances from local and national drag queens and kings, including superstars from Logo’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” This year’s event will feature season five contestant Detox during Friday’s show and season eight winner Bob the Drag Queen on Saturday. Past headliners include Latrice Royale, Alyssa Edwards, Raven, Chad Michaels and Shangela.
The theme of this year’s Fire Ball is PULSE, in recognition of the 2016 mass shooting at an Orlando night club of the same name. Women's & LGBTQ Resource Director Chris Jorgenson said the event will embody a sense of community, resistance, and activism.
"It will be a call to action," Jorgenson said, "at a time where such action is crucial for the lives of LGBTQIA+ people."
The characteristically sold-out show is without a doubt the fiercest weekend on campus, and its success relies on student volunteers. Blugolds work both behind the scenes and on-stage, assisting with pre-event set up, ID checking, tip wrangling and other positions that help the show to run smoothly.
Since its inception, the Fire Ball has always been more than just entertainment.
All of the proceeds from The Fire Ball in the past years have gone towards the Women’s & LGBTQ Resource Center’s LGBTQA Student Support Fund, the majority of which supported student social justice advocacy efforts. Starting this year, The Fire Ball’s earnings will go toward the student participants of the Eau Queer Film Festival, allowing them to travel to San Francisco for the Frameline Film Festival, a high impact immersion experience that will enrich their involvement in the EQFF at UW-Eau Claire.
In the past, funds raised by The Fire Ball have been used to fund student involvement in the Eau Queer Film Festival, the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, the Midwest Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Ally College Conference (MBLGTACC) and the NEW Leadership™ Conference. Additionally, tips collected during the event will benefit the UW-Eau Claire Campus Harvest Food Pantry.
While the money provided by The Fire Ball is certainly impactful, the benefits of the event extend far beyond fundraising.
Women’s & LGBTQ Resource Center intern Kallie Friede, a senior Women’s Studies and Mass Communication, Public Relations double major from River Falls, said The Fire Ball allows LGBTQ+ students to see their own identities affirmed in a palpable way.
“Whether they’ve never seen a drag show, are avid ‘RuPaul’ followers, or are coming to experiment with their own gender expression, it’s important that all of those experiences are validated, which I think is exactly what The Fire Ball does,” Friede said.
The Fire Ball was the first time Devin Dawson, a senior comprehensive social work major from Antigo, was exposed to the LGBTQ+ community. Since then, Daws has been a personal assistant to drag queen Coco Latte at each Fire Ball and has interned with the Women’s & LGBTQ Resource Center for three years.
“I love the energy and the community [of The Fire Ball]. There are only two events I look forward to every year, and it is Fire Ball and MBLGTACC,” Dawson said. “They are the only events that are centered around the LGBTQ+ community, and I love the feeling of comfort among my people.”
The Fire Ball is many students’ first opportunity to be immersed in an LGBTQ-positive environment. The drag show provides its audience with a celebratory, comfortable space to fully accept and express their identities while surrounded by others who are doing the same.
Senior women’s studies major and mathematics minor Chandler Roberts, Sun Prairie, is an intern with the Women’s & LGBTQ Resource Center. They said The Fire Ball and other events hosted by the Women’s and LGBTQ Resource Center has allowed them to make valuable connections and relationships they otherwise would not have had.
“I had very limited interaction with other individuals of the LGBTQIA+ community before coming to UW-Eau Claire,” Roberts said, later adding, “The Fire Ball serves as a bridge between different communities coming together to celebrate LGBTQIA+ community, which I would argue is incredibly crucial during our new political climate. Unity creates strength, and The Fire Ball can be a great way to connect with others and create resistance against those institutions that are harming many individuals.”
The drag performers at The Fire Ball represent the LGBTQ+ community with unapologetic self-acceptance, one that elevates identities that are often diminished. This openness may be taken for granted by non-LGBTQ+ individuals, but for many people on campus, the experience is uncommon.
“There are absolutely students on our campus who feel like they can’t come out or they can’t be vocal about LGBTQ rights for their own personal safety, self-care, etcetera,” Friede said. “That feeling is completely understandable. We want events like The Fire Ball to create the sort of community that people feel comfortable in if and when they’re ready to join it.”
Friede added that she hopes events like The Fire Ball signal to LGBTQ+ students on campus that the Women’s & LGBTQ Resource Center is there to advocate for and support them.
But even today, Dawson said that for queer individuals to openly accept and express their identities can be a political act. In this way, merely representing the LGBTQ+ community can be an act of resistance.
“I am an avid supporter of the age old feminist adage, “The personal is political,” in which just living our lives as a queer community is an act of resistance in a world where things such as the Pulse Orlando shooting happen to us all around the globe,” Dawson said. “The fact that we are still strong enough and still supporting each other by coming to and hosting these events are what make the queer community so capable of bouncing back and dealing with our political adversaries head on.”
Alyssa Plano, volunteer coordinator of The Fire Ball and junior English, critical studies major from Wausau, said that while The Fire Ball plays an important role in today’s political climate, more important are those who work behind the scenes every day to ensure the safety and support of marginalized groups on campus.
“The Fire Ball is an impactful event as far as visibility, which some could argue is an act of resistance,” Plano said, “but the real work and resistance happens behind closed doors, with both students and staff members who put in countless hours to make Eau Claire a better place for everyone.”
Plano added that UW-Eau Claire students are fortunate to have institutional support through the Women’s & LGBTQ+ Resource Center, something many universities do not provide.
Tickets for The Fire Ball: PULSE are available online or in person at the Service Center in Davies Center. More information about The Fire Ball and the Women’s & LGBTQ Resource Center can be found here.