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How Queer Prom Took Over America

The queering of a quintessentially American institution has opened hearts and doors for LGBTQ youth from coast to coast.
A drag queen performs at this weekend's Queer Prom in Chicago. All photos by the author

A boy with a lime green bowtie lingered shyly in a doorway, accompanied by a girl in a striking tuxedo, and it was as if I was staring at myself through a time portal.

The boy and his date had arrived at the 2017 Queer Prom at the National Museum of Mexican Art on Chicago's Lower West Side. Like other queer proms across the country, it was a chance for them to live out that teenage rite of passage—prom night—but as an inclusive gathering for LGBTQ youth and allies. Surrounded by giddy teens this past Friday, I became acutely aware that it was almost exactly 20 years since my friends and I stepped through a nearly identical doorway into our own queer prom, held in a Connecticut Unitarian Universalist church in 1997.


With two decades of distance, I found this weekend's prom to be not all that different from my own: circles of awkward teen-dancing (and, occasionally, amazing dancing), clusters of kids gossiping in the dark around balloon-decorated tables. The female-bodied attendees looked dashing in suits and rainbow suspenders, glow sticks ringed every wrist, and androgynous looks were sprinkled liberally throughout. The one big difference was that selfies were taken on phones instead of disposable cameras from CVS.

Teen's at this weekend's Queer Prom in Chicago

"There wasn't anything for LGBTQ youth of color in their own community, outside of Boystown," said Emmanuel García, referring to Chicago's traditionally gay Northside neighborhood. One of the founders of the event 12 years ago, he stood at a table and watched the giggling flirtations across the ballroom. García attended his public high school's prom back in 2000, but "I felt on the spot," he said. "You were an outsider. It wasn't your space."

At the time, the National Museum of Mexican Art produced an Spanish-language LGBTQ radio show called Homorequencia. García collaborated with the show's producers to put together a prom where queer youth wouldn't feel like outsiders.

"There was a lot of backlash in the beginning," he said, but he emphasized that nearly all of it came from outside the surrounding, predominantly Latinx Pilsen neighborhood. Though some museum sponsors canceled their donations, he said, "there's never been complaints from the neighborhood."


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Queer proms are a relatively recent innovation (I was fortunate enough to attend one of the first in the nation), but proms themselves date back to the late 1800s, when they were geared more toward college students. The practice spread downward to high schools by the 1920s, a time when American attitudes toward love and romance were shifting from a pragmatic business arrangement to an emotional celebration. The term "love-marriage" was coined to describe those revolutionary couples who bucked tradition and married for the sake of mutual affection.

But even then, proms were spaces of exclusion: Black students were often barred from attending, and incredibly, some Southern schools have only done away with racially segregated proms within the last decade.

One of the first documented same-sex couples to openly attend prom together were two teens named Randy and Grady, who attended their Sioux Falls, South Dakota, prom under threat of being tarred and feathered in 1979.

A year later, a student named Aaron Fricke at Cumberland High School in Rhode Island attempted to bring a same-sex date to his prom, and Principal Richard Lynch intervened to stop him. He brought suit against Lynch in federal court, and their eventual victory in Fricke v. Lynch established that queer students could not be barred from bringing dates to proms at public schools. Fricke attended with a date and an escort of six police officers.


Though the case established the legal right of students to attend prom in queer couples, asserting that right often required exhausting fights. In the 90s, my own high school illegally maintained a ban on gay couples attending. Too terrified to date, let alone wage war for my right to dance with a nonexistent boyfriend, I didn't bother challenging it.

It wasn't until 1994 that a Los Angeles school district would sanction what it called the country's first public gay and lesbian prom. It may have looked like a fairly traditional prom—according to the LA Times, the affair was complete with "shiny limos, corsages and boutonnieres, deep-house/tribal/techno music"—but the theme chosen for the night betrayed a certain level of anxiety: "Live to Tell."

A handful of protesters gathered outside the Hilton where the prom was held, shouting at the teens as they arrived. Though the LA Times noted that attendees took the demonstration in stride, some also betrayed the strife that accompanied being publicly queer in the 90s. "It's still tough at school," 17-year-old Chris Barlow said. "Every time I walk down a hallway I'm always shoved or somebody gives me a bad look or calls me 'faggot' and 'queer.' By the end of the day, I feel emotionally and physically tired."

Queer proms would soon spread to more suburban areas, and the following year, sleepy Hayward, California, hosted one that attracted hundreds of students—along with the Westboro Baptist Church.
By the time I attended my own in 1997, queer proms were so widespread that my friends and I were able to pile into someone's parents' car and drive to one just a few towns over.


That same year, Rayna Ortiz attended a surprisingly welcoming prom at her school in Cicero, Illinois. Ortiz went to Chicago's queer prom this weekend as the Trans Resource Navigator for Chicago House, a local group supporting LGBTQ populations. (It was one of a half dozen nonprofits on hand to offer their services, including free STI checks.) A trans woman, she won prom queen in 97 with the support of her fellow students.

"There were a lot of parents who were…" she told me, her voice trailing off when we spoke about her experience. "The youth were accepting," she said, changing the subject. "I wasn't going to allow anybody to stop me."

But at the time, that level of bravery was the exception, rather than the norm. "If there was a queer prom [in 1997,] a lot more people could have been open," she said. "Why was I the only out queer person at my high school?"

Today, queer proms growing in popularity from coast to coast. Baltimore inaugurated a queer prom in 2015. One in South Carolina is in its second year. Traverse City, Michigan, threw its first queer prom last month. And even public school proms are far friendlier to LGBTQ students than they were just a few years ago. In Utah, a trans student, Maka Brown, was named prom queen in 2015, a first for a state that was once ground zero for banning Gay-Straight Alliances.

Despite the progress, there's ongoing anxiety about how the country's unsteady political climate could affect LGBTQ youth. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may soon strip funding from public schools, which offer civil rights protection, and shift it to private schools with no protection for queer youth.

"The temperature right now is very extreme," said organizer Emmanuel García. "A racist, transphobic climate. We're hearing fear in schools about the progress we've made."

But in addition to providing a venue for social support, career development, and health education, queer proms are also an opportunity for queer youth to organize and protect one another. An attendee who wished to be identified only as "Star" told me that she had to keep her attendance secret from her parents.

"I turn 18 on August 8, and then I'll be out, and it'll be nice," she sighed. Her friends, clustered around in a semi-circle, lit up, and began excitedly discussing the next big event after the prom: It would be a rainbow-themed coming-out party, they said, for Star.

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