By the time Daniel Trujillo was nine years old, the transgender Arizonan was already advocating for his own rights: He wrote a letter for a state legislator to read on the state Senate floor. Four years later, he and his parents started regularly driving hours to Phoenix, Arizona’s capital, to testify in person against the growing onslaught of anti-transgender bills.
For the past few months, though, Daniel has been working on a secret project to combat all that stress and fear-mongering: a prom for trans and non-binary kids in Washington, D.C.
On Monday, roughly 150 trans children and adults from 16 states gathered in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. to attend a prom to celebrate trans kids. The decor was 1970s-inspired, in a nod to the 1969 Stonewall uprising, and involved a “Tunnel of Love” arch decked out in pale pink and blue, the colors of the trans flag. The kids put together a playlist of songs by artists like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, and set up performances: Trujillo played guitar during a performance of Demi Lovato’s song “Warrior,” and a fellow steering committee member, 12-year-old Grayson McFerrin from Dallas, Texas, did a youth drag performance.
While politicians demonize trans children and their families, the organizers behind prom say that trans kids deserve a chance to just be kids—with all the rites of passage that come with growing up.
“Trans Prom is a big statement of what schools and public life would be like if trans people were celebrated and protected,” said Daniel, who is now 15 and wants to become a musician. He wore a sparkly black bowtie to prom, along with blue and pink shoelaces.
If 2022 marked the year that anti-trans hate went mainstream, 2023 showed just how hateful state legislators can be: More than 500 anti-trans bills have cascaded into statehouses across the country this year. More anti-trans bills were introduced this year than in the last four years combined, according to a tally by the Washington Post.
These bills can damage LGBTQ kids’ mental health, which has long been precarious. Almost half of all LGBTQ kids seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, and almost one in five transgender and nonbinary youth did attempt it, according to a 2022 national survey by the Trevor Project. A January poll by the organization found that 86 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth reported that recent debates around anti-trans bills have negatively impacted their mental health.
Sixteen-year-old Hobbes Chukumba, another member of the trans prom steering committee, lives in blue New Jersey, so his family isn’t too worried about facing anti-trans legislation. Hobbes’ school is also supportive of him, cracking down on all forms of bullying and quickly updating students’ IDs so they can reflect their correct name and gender.
But, Hobbes told VICE News, just because he isn’t directly affected by the bills doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel their sting.
“Even though I'm not directly struggling, I still feel overwhelmed by it every now and again,” said Hobbes, who’s interested in studying aerospace engineering in college. “I feel the pain and the struggle that the rest have to go through, because that's what it means to be part of a community. It means [having] that connection.”
Hobbes’ father, Stephen Chukumba, focuses on letting Hobbes “guide the discussion” about the attacks on trans kids. A few months ago, Chukumba took Hobbes to a Human Rights Campaign fundraising dinner in Texas. It was the first time that Hobbes tagged along to an event like that.
“The way I keep him safe is by empowering him to understand what's happening and to not feel defeated or not feel afraid,” Stephen told VICE News. “Because at the end of the day, the reality is that there have been marginalized people fighting for equality since the inception of this country. That's just a fact. And so those communities that have achieved any level of equality have done so by fighting tooth and nail.”
Watching his son get ready for the prom thrilled Chukumba; this was his first time not only helping a kid get properly ready for prom, but also chaperoning it. In the weeks before the prom, they picked up a suit, found a pair of funky-patterned socks that they oriented Hobbes’ outfit around, and got his hair and nails done.
“The narrative that's being framed around trans people is just one that presumes everything is gloom and doom,” Chukumba said. “In fact, there are so many stories of joy and celebration and brilliance and just being youthful that aren't really actively talked about.”
For the steering committee members and their parents, the Washington, D.C. prom wasn’t only a chance to party—it was a chance to connect in person with other trans youth and their families from across the country. Lizette Trujillo, Daniel’s mom, said that the trip to the nation’s Capitol would be centered around “chosen family.”
“In a moment where they're trying to strip you of all of your rights and access to care and being able to participate in school sports like your peers, or being able to use your pronouns in the classroom, like it's transgressive to say, ‘I'm going to be joyous regardless and I'm going to exist whether you want me to or not,’” Trujillo said. “And so I'm proud of Daniel, and I'm proud that we get to be a part of this.”