By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009
Spend time with George Mason University senior Ryan Allen and it's clear why he's a Big Man on Campus. He wears size 12 pumps.
Allen is now -- as of halftime at Saturday's sold-out basketball game against Northeastern at the Patriot Center -- the school's homecoming queen. He received more votes than the two women who vied for the crown.
Allen, who is gay and performs as a popular drag queen at local clubs, assumed the title of Ms. Mason. He was wearing a green-and-gold bow, sewn for him by the theater department costume's shop, that was visible even from the cheap seats, a sequined top, a black skirt and heels. Ricky Malebranche, a junior from Woodbridge, was named Mr. Mason.
Beyond the joyful tears and tiara, Allen's election exposed conflicting cultural currents at the sprawling campus in Fairfax County. Many see it as an expression of inclusiveness at a place where about one-third of the 30,000 students are minority. But others say it is an embarrassment at an inopportune time when Mason is trying to revamp its image from commuter school to distinguished institution of higher learning.
Officially, the university is "very comfortable with it. We're fine," spokesman Daniel Walsch said. The school does not require participants in the Mr. and Ms. Mason pageant to compete along precise gender lines, he said.
"It was just for fun," Allen, 22, said over coffee at the Johnson Center, where he was congratulated by classmates with hugs and squeals. "In the larger scheme of things, winning says so much about the university. We're one of the most diverse campuses in the country, and . . . we celebrate that."
The pageant has been a part of homecoming for five years, but it often didn't register with the far-flung student body, of which only 16 percent lives on campus. Students say it was considered the province of pretty blondes and fraternity boys.
"I've never been into homecoming over here. This is the first time I've actually wanted to support someone," said Melissa Benjjani, 21, from Lebanon. "He deserves to be queen. He's already a queen for everybody."
George Mason has attracted greater national attention in recent years as officials worked to recruit first-class academic talent while undergoing a $400 million expansion. Then there was the Patriots' Cinderella trip to the Final Four in the 2006 NCAA men's basketball tournament -- a huge boost for school spirit.
But electing a dude as homecoming queen is not the way to bolster pride, sophomore Grant Bollinger said. Mason was recently named the No. 1 national university to watch by U.S. News & World Report, he said -- it should act like it.
"It's really annoying," said Bollinger, who works as an ambassador for the admissions office. "The game was on TV. Everyone was there. All eyes were on us. And we do something like this? It's just stupid."
Allen said he decided to enter the Ms. Mason contest this year as a joke, a last hurrah for his senior year. Soon he had donned a silver bra and zebra-print pants and was lip-syncing to Britney Spears's "Womanizer" at the qualifying pageant Feb. 9, overseen by Miss Virginia 2009. Competitors included a government and politics major from Chesapeake and a Chi Omega sorority member who told the school newspaper she should win because "I have pride in Mason to the point where my towels are green and gold."
Allen grew up in tiny Goochland, Va., about 30 miles northwest of Richmond, and endured years of taunts from classmates after coming out during his freshman year in high school. When Allen came to Mason in 2005, his world grew wider. His drag alter ego, Reann, began performing at nightclubs including Freddie's Beach Bar in Crystal City and Apex in the District. Over the years, Allen perfected his stagecraft, learning how to apply shading makeup to look more feminine and buying gowns on a student budget from other drag queens. His fame grew as each year he emceed Mason's drag show, held during Pride Week. And with fame, acceptance.
Then came Saturday.
"When they said 'Ms. Mason 2009 is Reann Ballslee,' the crowd went wild," Allen said. "It was one of the best feelings I've felt in a long time. I had so many friends supporting me."