Genderfuck planners to refocus party around gender expression

Students dressed up for last year's Genderfuck.
Students dressed up for last year's Genderfuck.
Students dressed up for last year’s Genderfuck. Photo by Holly Smith.

This year’s annual Genderfuck will be held Saturday, April 26 in Sharples Dining Hall. The main event will still be a party, but organizers say that the student body should move towards understanding Genderfuck primarily as an opportunity for students to play with their preconceived notions of gender.

“This party will offer us a good outlet for [gender expression],” said Kenneson Chen ’14, who is on the organizing committee for the event. “We’re taking some of the criticism that has come to Genderfuck’s door to … bring it back to [being] this space for experimentation.”

This is the second time Chen is helping to plan Genderfuck. He was recruited for the position by Student Activities Coordinator Mike Elias, but he took it on with some reservations. The last time he worked on Genderfuck, as a sophomore, there were ongoing conflicts with administrators over the party’s legitimacy. This time, planning has gone more smoothly.

“I wish I had more support from the administration in terms of manpower and hands-on collaboration, but overall it’s been a much more pleasant interaction,” said Chen. “It hasn’t been hostile.”

Genderfuck is being organized by a committee of ten people. The Drug and Alcohol Resource Team, Swat Team and Acquaintance Sexual Assault Prevention are also supporting the committee to create a safe event. Chen was clear that while some aspects of Genderfuck may provoke discomfort, student safety is non-negotiable.

As part of the effort to refocus Genderfuck on the expression of gender, the organizing committee chose the theme “Parrish is Burning.” This is a pun on the 1991 documentary “Paris is Burning,” which takes as its subject the underground ballroom community of New York City. The film’s main characters are drag performers negotiating their presentation of gender, race and class. Although plans are not yet concrete, event organizers want to have a showing of “Paris is Burning,” possibly including a follow-up talk, sometime in the week before Genderfuck.

The organizing committee is also looking into bringing drag performers to campus on the day of Genderfuck. They would like to hold a workshop where the performers can explain their techniques. Later, they might make an appearance at the party itself.

“A lot of the time at Swarthmore, we use language that you’d need a dictionary to understand,” said Chen, in reference to discussions of gender and sexuality. “Having a workshop with someone whose job it is to entertain with this art form, who has come to show us how to do it –- that’s as concrete as it gets.”

Incorporating elements of genuine drag culture into the event is a conscious choice for the organizing committee, which is concerned that the “cross-dressing” theme of the party is taken too lightly. Members of the queer community have taken offense in the past to some attitudes expressed through the event.

“A part of the idea of fucking with gender is trying really hard to explore those in-between spaces between our societal conception of ‘man’ and our societal conception of ‘woman,’” said Joyce Wu ’15, a member of the Swarthmore Queer Union board. “Part of it is really interrogating your personal sense of gender … and whether you’ve really thought about that and explored that.”

Wu doesn’t believe that students who make their clothing choice a joke are fully engaging with these goals. SQU will address the issue at a meeting held the week before Genderfuck, which they hope will draw in curious queer freshmen who can disseminate a message of thoughtfulness and sensitivity. The organizing committee also wants to encourage conversation between RAs and members of the freshman class, so that everyone will have an idea of what to expect.

Michelle Myers ’15, who has attended the last two Genderfucks, believes that some of the cross-dressing which goes on is, ironically, a venue to express heteronormativity. In the past, she has felt frustrated with the humor some students find in straight, cisgendered men wearing dresses.

“It should be, ‘I’m in solidarity with people who wear dresses.’ Not ‘I’m making fun of people who wear dresses,’” she said. “It’s like there’s an inherent funniness to wearing a dress that there isn’t in wearing a suit, because wearing a dress is disempowering.”

Wu defined the difference between playfulness and mockery as a question of intention.

“As long as your intentions are like, ‘I’m exploring gender, and playing with it, and seeing where it takes me,’ then I think that the whole dressing-up process can be really useful and productive,” she said. “But there are a lot of nuances.”

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