Equality Gala celebrates LGBTQ+ community

All proceeds from the event will be donated to a local LGBTQ+ resource center


Emma Malinak

A drag queen interacts with her audience while performing a lip-sync routine. Photo by Emma Malinak, ’25

Emma Malinak, Arts & Life Editor

Pounding bass, upbeat music and applause for drag queen performances echoed from the Cannan Green event space through Washington and Lee University’s campus on March 18 as students, faculty and community members enjoyed the Virginia Colleges LGBTQ+ Equality Gala.
Gala Chair Elena Lee, ’25, said having this type of event on campus is important because it provides “a different type of representation that’s not very visible and hasn’t been very visible” in the university’s history.
“Everybody in that tent is allowed to be seen, be heard, and just exist in their own space in their own body the way that they feel most comfortable,” Lee said.
The event, hosted by the Queer Liberation Alliance (QLA) and Washington and Lee’s LGBTQ Resource Center, raised about $3,000 in donations and provided a safe space for students to celebrate their identity.
Jake Reeves, assistant director of inclusion and engagement for LGBTQ+ support, said everyone is welcome at the gala, which isn’t always the case at school dances.
“Bring whoever you want to, identify however you want to, dress however you want to, because we all didn’t get that chance going to prom in high school,” Reeves said.
Lee and members of the gala planning committee have been working since November to organize every detail of the event. The theme for this year’s dance was “Gala-Ween,” complete with spooky tombstone and cobweb decorations and Halloween-themed costumes.
Six drag queens performed throughout the night, lip-syncing and dancing to their favorite songs and interacting with the crowd.
Reeves said having a drag presence at the gala is important because Washington and Lee is in what he calls a “queer desert.” Cities with a strong LGBTQ+ community, like Staunton and Charlottesville, are far enough away from campus that they are not accessible to students who want to explore or celebrate queer culture.
He explained that while he is proud to offer this opportunity for Washington and Lee students, he is focused on opening the event to as many community members as possible.
“We are doing so many great things on campus, and we’re celebrating each other. That’s awesome,” Reeves said. “What we don’t want to forget is that there are other people who should experience this as well.”
Ever since its establishment in 2012, the Equality Gala has provided open invitations to students at Rockbridge County High School, Southern Virginia University, Virginia Military Institute and other Virginia schools and universities. Washington and Lee faculty and staff and Lexington community members are also welcome.
This year, out of the over 300 tickets sold, only about half of the tickets were purchased by Washington and Lee students. The rest were sold to members of the LGBTQ+ community from across the country. Students from Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill even crossed state lines to celebrate the Equality Gala.
QLA executive member Shannon Tozier, ’25, said bringing people of different ages and backgrounds together helps W&L students to see the support networks that exist around them.
“Being queer on campus is also being queer in Rockbridge and being queer in Virginia and being queer in the U.S.,” Tozier said. “It’s so important for people that may be discovering their identity to recognize that there are larger queer communities and queer spaces than just what they find here on a day-to-day basis.”
But the event is open to all students and community members, including allies who want to support others in their journey of finding, expressing and being proud of their identity. Even President Will Dudley stopped by the gala to greet guests.
Tyler Bush, ’26, a gala committee chair, said the event is special because it welcomes allies just as much as it supports LGBTQ+ students.
“There’s the stereotype that QLA or the Equality Gala is just meant for people who identify as queer. That’s not the case,” he said. “It’s meant for anyone and everyone to have a good time. It’s just like Fancy Dress, it’s just our version of it.”
Reeves said the gala provides two forms of support—one being the safe space itself and the other being the donations that it collects—that are crucial for the local queer community.
All proceeds from the tickets and sale of merchandise such as tote bags and t-shirts, totaling about $3,000, were donated to the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center in Staunton. The center offers health care, weekly events and a space to make friends and find support for members of the local LGBTQ+ community.
The gala is one event of many hosted by QLA and the LGBTQ Resource Center. This year, the center has specifically focused on making trans health care available to students, expanding gender neutral housing options and providing LGBTQ+ inclusion training to all athletes.
Tozier said most of QLA’s programming occurs out of the public eye to ensure that students feel safe. But they said the Equality Gala is important because it is one of the only opportunities that brings W&L’s LGBTQ+ community into the spotlight every year.
“I feel like a lot of the stuff we do is very focused on the ‘queer alliance’ part. It’s centered in the Red House, which is more of a private space,” Tozier said. “[The gala] is more of the ‘liberation’ aspect. It’s making this a giant, public, very visible event.”
With Daily Wire columnist Matt Walsh planning to speak on campus on March 30, Reeves said the visibility of and support for Washington and Lee’s LGBTQ+ community is more important than ever.
“Seeing a W&L student group host a speaker that is a self-described transphobe and fascist isn’t just painful – it’s angering,” Reeves wrote in an email to students and faculty on March 24. “We want you all to know that we support you – we, too, feel anger toward this event, and we will do whatever we can to make sure you know that you are not alone in your feelings or in your efforts.”