Like many parts of American adolescence, prom is often a fraught experience for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teenagers. Take, for example, the recent story of Constance McMillan, the Mississippi lesbian teenager who wanted to wear a tuxedo to her prom at Itawamba Agricultural High School and dance with her girlfriend. The school not only refused to let her attend but canceled the prom altogether when the ACLU threatened to sue on McMillan’s behalf. While many across the country, including talk show hostess and lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres who awarded McMillan a $30,000 scholarship, have called the 18-year-old a hero, McMillan said she feels ostracized from her community and from other students, some of whom are blaming her for the loss of their dance.
“I’ve been very nervous about all of this,” she told CNN on March 26. “I don’t like being somewhere where everyone hates me.”
Although today’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens live in a time where their sexual orientations and gender identities are more accepted than ever, stories like McMillan’s are still common — common enough that many of them never even attempt to attend a school dance with a same-sex date on their arm.
But happily, for Utah’s queer youth, there is an alternative. For the past several years, the Utah Pride Center has hosted Queer Prom, which welcomes youth age 14–20 of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including straight allies.
“This is their prom where they’re comfortable and not in the minority,” said Jude McNeil, the Center’s Youth Program Director. “They can express themselves in any way they want and that’s celebrated rather than something that’s rejected.”
Along with a number of youth volunteers and adult chaperons, McNeil has overseen the prom for the last four years (Queer Prom, however, was held before she came to work at the Center). In that time, she says that it has changed a great deal while attracting more and more youth each year.
Originally held in a space donated by Gastronomy, Inc., Queer Prom moved to the Salt Palace in 2006 where it ran into exactly the kind of trouble that makes holding a prom specifically for queer youth necessary.
“Other proms were going on at the same time [at the Salt Palace], so we had youth marking up our posters with words like ‘faggot,’” she explained. “I was really proud of our youth, though, because they were taunted and they didn’t react. Even though they were angry, they handled themselves really well.”
In 2007, the prom moved to its current home at the Salt Lake City Main Public Library, where such homophobic incidents are a thing of the past.
“It’s a really pretty place,” said McNeil. “The library’s been extremely respectful and culturally sensitive, so it’s been a pleasure working with them.”
Apparently, the youth like it, too. Since 2006, when the prom attracted some 640 teenagers, attendance has grown by “10 or 20 each year,” said McNeil, who is expecting some 700 students to walk through the doors this year. As with any school prom, they come to party, hang out with friends and dance — in this case to tunes spun by DJ Portia Early, formerly of X96’s “Live and Local” program.
“She says it’s her favorite prom and the kids are always so nice and respectful,” said McNeil.
Unlike most school dances, however, Queer Prom never fails to keep in mind that its youth have questions and needs that the broader community is often not answering or meeting. Last year, for example, the Center began offering HIV testing at the prom and tested over 60 youth. There are also pamphlets and a number of resources available on tables.
“There’s one kid who tells the story of how he had identified as a lesbian [until] he found a pamphlet on transgender identities at prom and realized that identity more closely fit,” said McNeil. “So he was able to access resources and his quality of life has gone up quiet a bit.”
Because many queer youth come to Queer Prom who don’t know about or don’t visit the Utah Pride Center, the Center has distribute a survey at the prom for years to find out what the attending youth need and what resources they have access to. Past surveys, for example, have focused on youths’ lives at home and their usage of tobacco, alcohol and illegal substances. This year’s topic, said McNeil, will be a school climate survey, much like the one that the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network conducts.
“We’re wanting to know what it’s like for kids in school now,” she said. “Hopefully we can share the results with anyone who wants them and with Utah schools so they can hopefully understand why some schools need to do more work to make school safer for all students.”
In order to make the prom safe and fun for all youth, a number of adults from Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and allied community volunteer their time each year. Adults over 21 — including several PFLAG parents, community leaders and volunteers from the Center’s Youth Activity Center — serve as chaperons, and members of the GLBT Safety Liaison Committee, a group composed of police and community members, provide security for the event. Locals often donate prizes and services to the prom. For example, photographers Heather and Chris Gibbs provide prom pictures at print cost. Likewise, SLUG Magazine has sponsored an art contest for the past three years which asks youth to make art pieces based on the prom’s theme (this year’s theme is “I’m Coming Out,” after the famous Diana Ross song and gay anthem). The three winning entries, which youth vote on, receive prom packages that include prom tickets and a number of services, including: a haircut and style by Princess Kennedy; prom clothes from Blue Boutique; dinner for two at Meditrina and coffee for two at NoBrow Tea & Coffee.
“It’s definitely something the community comes together for to make all this happen and make it as fun and safe as possible,” said McNeil.
But the youth who attend the prom don’t just sit idly back and let the adults do all the work. Rather, the leadership of Queers in Action, the Center’s volunteer outreach group for queer and allied youth, plans the prom down to the last detail, from choosing the theme and decorations to electing prom royalty, which happens right before Queer Prom at the Big Big Event talent show.
“If they win as monarch they get prizes and get to emcee at next year’s prom, and do other things throughout the year,” said McNeil.
This year’s Big Big Event will be held in the Center’s Multi-Purpose Room on April 3, from 6–9 p.m. Food will be provided and youth ages 14–20 are invited to participate.
From start to finish, Queer Prom is a night of fun for youth, volunteers, chaperons and all involved.
“We always get tons of positive feedback from the chaperons, parents and youth,” said McNeil. “The youth often talk about how it’s the best prom of the year and they really enjoyed it. Even straight youth will prefer the prom. It has a different feel to most proms.”
Queer Prom 2010 “I’m Coming Out” will be held April 10 from 8 p.m.–12:00 a.m. at the Salt Lake City Main Public Library, 210 E. 400 South. Tickets will be on sale soon.