The prom, that pinnacle of the high school experience, can be more anxiety-making than memory-making. No date, the wrong date, a date who leaves with someone other than who he or she came with, wearing the same dress as another girl, wearing the absolute wrong dress, not being named prom queen. Just watch the ‘80s-era classic Pretty In Pink for many of the reasons why proms are so much better as ironic parties for adults.
But what if, aside from those typical worries, you were refused admission to your prom because you want to bring a same-gender date? That’s what happened to Constance McMillen. And transgender student Tony Zamazal was forbidden to wear a dress to his prom. The Huffington Post reported on both.
Local organization Youth Outright (which supports and empowers gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning young people) has an alternative in mind: YO Prom. Set for May 11, the event, for youth ages 14-23, promises a safe space where promgoers can dance with whomever they like and wear (as the event flyer puts it) “what makes you feel fabulous.”
“Some people don't feel safe being themselves and dressing the way they want to or bringing the date that they want to at other proms,” says Candace Brady who is part of Youth Outright’s prom committee. “We want to give youth a chance to have a prom night that they'll never forget.”
Youth Outright coordinator Al Murray says that the committee has been working since February to plan the event. The idea of the prom began as a project-specific goal around which a youth-led advisory committee could grow. The committee was inspired by a Creating Change conference in Atlanta which promoted the importance of an LGBTQ community being able to socialize together. The goal of the prom, says Murray, was to “provide a space for folks to come together for a special, unique social event, in a way that they may not have been able to in other spaces in their lives.”
The venue, Toy Boat Community Art Center, was selected both for its support of the LGBTQ community and for its handicapped accessibility. The committee “made sure the space had gender-neutral restrooms,” says Murray. “They also really wanted to work with people who wanted to work with out, happy, loud, queer youth.” It was also a priority to find a caterer and DJ who would be affirming to the prom attendees — DJ Abu Disarray will spin.
“The community has responded really well to our prom,” says Brady. “We've gotten a lot of support.”
Murray goes on to note that by creating the event, the prom committee has been “tapping into roots in their own community that they may not have always understood to be there. They’re finding there’s greater support for them than they might have originally thought.”
This one one of the first times that Youth Outright has really opened itself to the local community, says Murray. The group hadn’t put itself in the position to be turned down, so this was a potentially vulnerable situation. And some of the young people involved with Youth Outright had an expectation that the rural high schools would be unsupportive. “We have gay-straight alliance sponsors at local high schools who are very supportive, and one of them is at Irwin High School,” says Murray. The lesson: While those high schools might sometimes be difficult places for LGBTQ students, they do have allies.
“I had hoped that it would be positive, but I’ve also been pleasantly affirmed,” says Murray.
For Brady, a member of Youth Outright since last summer, the group has provided more than just an excellent party. (It will be excellent: “The theme of the prom is ‘Embrace. Encourage. Empower,’ says Brady. “We're doing the color scheme of Youth Outright which is pink, purple and blue. We're going to have a lot of lights and glitter, of course.”) She says that she’s been given many opportunities to volunteer and to help make a difference in the gay community. “I've made great friendships and I've created my own ‘chosen family’ there.”
Brady says that she was home schooled and so didn’t have a prom experience for that reason. She’s looking forward to creating those Pretty In Pink-worthy memories. “My friends are talking about getting suits and picking out prom dresses, because people want to take this chance to have their full prom experience,” she says. “I'm wearing a long, pink prom dress with glitter. But I'm also wearing Converse Chuck Taylors because I want to be myself and feel comfortable.”
YO Prom, which planners hope to make into an annual event, is also open to straight allies of the LGBTQ community. It will be chaperoned by adults. And, for those who love the idea of this prom but are closer to chaperone age than student age, here’s another way to support it: Consider donating the cost of a ticket for a young person who may not otherwise be able to attend.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what: YO Prom (for ages 14-23)
where: Toy Boat Community Art Center
when: Saturday, May 11 (8-11 p.m., $10. http://youthoutright.org)