Ah, spring is in the air, and we are slowly emerging from our somewhat self-imposed winter hibernation. Indiana weather being what it is, with its taunting hints of warmth interspersed with chilly, dank and even snowy days, we have ultimate respect for the brave little flowers and buds that pop up to face whatever the elements toss their way.

Those of us who are in some way affiliated with the academic community know that the pace on campus picks up rapidly in March and that April ranks as probably the busiest time. Coincident with the energy of spring, there are final reports due, frantic test taking, grades to determine, award ceremonies and receptions, graduation parties, last-minute parties and nights out on the town, and parents and families on campus.

Obviously there are many events competing for attention, and it’s difficult to attend all of them, but we want to call your attention to an annual event that is special in that it is fun, historic in its very existence and longevity and famous on a national level.

The annual Miss Gay Indiana University pageant is held each spring, produced and sponsored by IU’s undergraduate LGBT Student Union OUT.

OUT was founded over 25 years ago and not only is it the oldest LGBT student group on campus, it was one of the first such organizations on any university campus in the country. And if that isn’t impressive enough, Miss Gay IU was the first student-sponsored drag competition held on a campus anywhere and has been a tradition in Bloomington for nearly 18 years. What began as a small show in the Frangipani room in the Indiana Memorial Union has grown into one of the nation’s largest and most well-attended drag pageants for female impersonators.

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Now, we are well aware that some of our readers aren’t particularly fond of or receptive to drag pageants and question their relevance to an educational environment. We, of course, disagree with their assessment. What better way to reflect IU’s and Bloomington’s oft-touted principles of acceptance, tolerance and diversity than by supporting a successful student effort that represents and promotes those very values?

"Miss Gay IU was the first student-sponsored drag competition held on a campus anywhere."

Miss Gay IU is a unique experience and provides insight into a world frequently hidden from view. And while some think it should remain so, the drag queens and culture are indeed a part of the performing arts and have helped shape cinema and theater as we know it today. From the many personas of Milton Berle to the characters of Flip Wilson and current comics and performers, their influence is noticeable. Female impersonation has been a part of show business and theater for thousands of years, viewed as legitimate performance in some countries and remains popular worldwide.

We recognize that drag may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but IU offers so many different types of entertainment from musical productions, including opera, rock and orchestral arrangements, to comedy and noted speakers that we think there is something for everyone, and folks should attend what they enjoy and ignore what they don’t.

Moralizing about what someone else defines as “real” art or performance is a waste of time because we all have our own preference when it comes to entertainment. And, if the overall goal of an educational environment is indeed education, then we should be open to new experiences. We ask, should someone judge without being informed? And, once informed, should their approval or disapproval determine the rights of others?

You know we are going to say emphatically “No!” to these questions. And perhaps even more significant is the support of student efforts and quest for knowledge and experience that is anticipated from adult mentors and leaders. Aren’t those relationships and expectations among the factors inherent in the mission of education as well?

The OUT students put much energy into producing this major pageant each year, and we believe their efforts should be supported by both the IU and Bloomington communities. Not only is OUT made up of some of our most promising future leaders, they are top-notch students academically, well-adjusted in the face of discrimination, and they have the energy to work with the performance world of drag in creating a major production each year.

Their efforts should not go unrewarded, and their commendable pursuit of educational outreach should not be demeaned.

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Each year, among the excitement and flurry that surrounds a typical pageant, are the harassers that pop up as reliably as those spring flowers. There are those who think the pageant should not be held at all because it misrepresents the queer community. We say how so? It’s entertaining theater with music, singing and dancing. And yes, it’s about gender representation too, but that’s pretty obvious and there is nothing secretive or subversive.

Then there are those who wish to censor the freedom of artistic expression. Well, ribald humor is not for everyone, and this pageant offers a glimpse of what might be experienced in a night club setting.

"OUT was founded over 25 years ago and not only is it the oldest LGBT student group on campus."

Another frequent complaint is that Miss Gay IU requires the contestants be born males, based upon the regulations set forth by the drag queens themselves. Some feel that the transgender community is being discriminated against, and while this is an important issue the organizers feel their complaints are unwarranted.

OUT does sponsor a male impersonation (by born females) pageant each fall and encourages those who want to organize a pageant for those who have transitioned from female to male or male to female to do so.

And then, some lesbians and feminists feel that drag makes fun of women. Here again, we, as lesbians and ardent feminists ourselves, disagree. We consider many queens to be among our personal friends, and we have experienced no sense of animosity toward us or other women and lesbians. In fact they admit to a great love and respect for women and believe they are honoring women, albeit in a caricature form. Geez, isn’t this all just so confusing? Complicated too!

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Maybe readers can see how this works now: Miss Gay IU is controversial. Controversy leads to discussion, and discussion in turn leads to information and education.

Voila!! OUT is a valuable campus institution that contributes to the educational climate by producing Miss Gay IU. For those who haven’t had the experience, give it a try. If you did and didn’t enjoy it, well, we won’t force you to attend again. Just don’t deny others the opportunity.

Helen Harrell can be reached at hharrell@indiana.edu.