Gay Proms: Separate but Equal?
It was the only memorable moment in what was otherwise a dull senior prom.
Matt Neely, one of the assistant principals in my high school, asked to be my last dance of the night. Surprised, I looked over at my date, Lissa, and asked if it was okay. She nodded, and Mr. Neely and I headed off to the dance floor.
Inevitably, Mr. Neely and I became the center of attention. Students and faculty members began to surround us, forming a circle in the middle of the room. For a while, many stared. But as the song went on, most started to dance.
It was special.
Never mind that Mr. Neely is a married man in his thirties. Never mind that I can't seem to remember the title of that song. And never mind that my first time dancing with a man wasn't at all romantic -- Mr. Neely wanted to make a point, and I, being the only openly gay student in my high school, went along with it.
In a 1999 national school survey of 32 states by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national nonprofit that works to address gay and lesbian issues in schools, 91 percent of 496 gay students surveyed said they regularly heard homophobic remarks at schools. More disturbingly, they reported that about 40 percent of the time, those comments came from school faculty or staff members.
Only Connecticut, Massachusetts, and most recently California, have laws that protect students from discrimination based on sexual orientation. But more and more high school students are comfortable coming out.
Many young people are taking an active role in fighting homophobia and intolerance. It helps to be organized and to have safe spaces to organize and form a community. What does all this have to do with the prom?
Well, as the prom season approaches, many high school-aged youth are choosing to attend independently sponsored dances where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are welcome to come as themselves -- boys with boys, girls with girls, without a dress code.
In cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston, gay proms have been happening for years. In some cases, students travel from neighboring states to attend. New York City's Harvey Milk School has held gay proms since it opened in the early 1980s.
In general this means that kids are no longer waiting to leave home to come out. In this sense, more and more high schools are having to deal with the reality that out queer youth are here to stay. Even outside of progressive, queer-friendly, major metropolitan areas.
When the chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in Dallas, Texas held a gay prom at a local hotel in 1998, the event -- the only gay prom in the South at that time -- drew a flurry of media attention and a group of protesters from an East Texan church.
The protest and others like it reflect a society that grows more and more complex. On the one hand we see youth who are really comfortable coming out in high school, who are so evolved they question the need for a special event of their own. On the other hand, however, there are still many people who have not accepted gay people as equals.
But gay proms ignite talk beyond that of corsages and tuxedoes. Some argue -- critics and supporters, gay and straight alike -- that gay proms further separate gay students from their straight counterparts, creating further misunderstanding and supporting division, not unity.
Michael Rau, a freshman at University of California at Berkeley, who identifies as straight, worried that creating a separate, gay prom at his university would be a form of segregation. He said, "I think we should focus on acceptance and integration, not separation."
Furthermore, many students see the prom as an opportunity to be with friends, and opt against spending an evening surrounded by strangers who happen to share their sexual orientation.
Shannon TenBroeck, a queer senior from Mountain View High School in California said, "I hesitate to go to [a gay prom] because it may be a little too overwhelming. It's more important for me to be with people who I know and like than with people of the same orientation as myself."
Rick Swanson, a senior at Sebastian River High School in Sebastian, Florida is bringing a girl to his upcoming prom. He hasn't attended a gay prom but wishes he could. Only some people at school know he's gay, and bringing a guy to the prom, he said, wouldn't be "in [his] best interest."
For most gay teens, like Swanson, attending a gay prom is the only way to really enjoy the night without having to worry about constant stares and looks of disapproval from their peers. "Gay proms are needed," he adds. "It gives gay students a chance to be free."
Billy Seares, an openly gay senior at Eastside High School in Newark, New Jersey said that having gay proms is all about "fairness" and "comfort." But he plans to bring a guy to this year's prom as he did last year. He says he cares little for the reaction he gets from his fellow students.
"Many queer kids don't feel safe about going to their own prom. They don't feel comfortable and want an alternative. Having gay proms provides them with that alternative," said Carolyn Laub, director of the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) Network of Northern California, a non-profit organization that helps schools organize GSAs in their campuses.
She added, "But I do understand the argument for full-integration. "At this particular moment in time, both strategies, gay and straight proms, should exist to give those who aren't comfortable a place to enjoy themselves and have fun."
In my high school, I was the target of much finger-pointing and whispering as I walked around the campus. "He's the gay one," I'd overhear. Then, I'd smile. To me, being gay is a part of who I am, not all that I am. My openness, to some extent, forced those around me to deal with their prejudices and conquer their own insecurities. The fact is, people fear what they don't understand.
Would I have gone to a gay prom, if I'd had the opportunity? Probably, just to experience it and see what it's like. Gay proms do serve their purpose, especially in a society that embraces the ideologies of Trent Lott and Jerry Falwell.
But all students -- gay or straight -- should feel comfortable, protected and safe in their schools. At all times. I worry that separating some of us from the whole will not lead to understanding. Safety is not a privilege. It's a right. And we all have a right to demand it, at the prom and at school.
Jose Antonio Vargas, is a freshman at San Francisco State University, studying Journalism and Poli Sci. He's also a freelance writer.