Inside Queer Proms, Where LGBTQ Adults Get a High School Revamp
Many say these events provide them with a safe and inclusive space to be themselves.
“I just wanted to enjoy the evening with my friends and not have to force myself to go on a date that I wasn’t comfortable with,” said Dengler, who identifies as queer.
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On May 14, she finally had the chance to prom her way. Dressed in a silver blue vest and tuxedo shirt, Dengler attended her first queer prom in Tampa with a group of friends.
“It was phenomenal,” she said. “Everyone was so comfortable there. We danced the whole time.
Before the event, she even did a series of promise videos and posted them online. “I wanted to experience it in some way,” she said, “and I felt like that was it for me.”
The vision behind the queer ball Dengler attended was to give people a second chance at the night they’ve always wanted, said Holly Winebarger, founder and chief programming officer of QFX, which hosted the event. It was also designed as a safe space for the LGBTQ community in Florida, “who are under attack from anti-queer legislation,” she added.
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“I wanted to know that I could walk into that room and see…people having a good time dancing with each other and not be amazed or embarrassed,” Dengler said of her experience at the queer ball. “And it was so nice to see that, it was so nice to be a part of it.”
With prom season underway across the country, other groups like QFX have been hosting formal events like queer proms to break with heteronormative traditions that have made school dances a difficult experience for some.
Many members of the LGBTQ community say these events provide them with a safe and inclusive space to be themselves. We asked a few of them to share their experiences and photos of their nights.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
“It was the ball I wish my younger self had”
Molly Hottle, 33, Seattle
Last June, I went to the Skate Prom, a collaboration between Roll Around Seatown and CIB Seattle. It was designed to give us all a reason to dress up and skate. But it was also a place for those of us who didn’t always feel welcome or at home at our traditional proms to celebrate, skate and treat ourselves!
When I went to prom in high school, everything was very traditional. I went with a male date and wore the big dress. It was all going well, but looking back, I know I was trying to fit into a box. The box looked like that cliche of what prom is supposed to look like in catalogs and movies.
As an adult, I was able to attend this ball and be myself. Two of my friends and I asked each other for platonic dates and we made corsages. I wore whatever I wanted, including my roller skates, put on a ton of glitter and extravagant makeup. I didn’t care what other people thought of me or my place in that box.
We skated in circles, held hands and did tricks at the skate park, all in the company of other queer people. It was the ball I wish my younger self had. It was the end of the year ball that I wish for all young homosexuals.
“Winning prom royalty was like a scene in a movie”
Simon Graves, 19, Norfolk
The queer ball I attended was organized by different organizations at my school, Old Dominion University. I chose to go support a close friend who helped plan the event. I also went because my prom was horrible and less gay inclusive.
One of the highlights of my queer prom night was walking into the room and feeling welcome seeing different queer people who attended my school. Later that night, I was crowned Royal Monarch, which intentionally breaks with traditional gender-specific titles like “Homecoming Queen” or “Prom King.” Winning prom royalty was like a scene in a movie.
“It’s always beautiful to see so many people living their truth”
Liz Osowiecki, 27, Long Island
When my friends and I were all in high school, we were either not comfortable being who we are or it was not safe to be who we are. The idea of going to prom with someone outside the “norm” wasn’t even a realistic idea. When we found out our friends were having a queer prom, we were so excited because now we’re really proud of who we are and couldn’t wait to celebrate. It’s always beautiful to see so many people live their truth.
“I felt so rewarded to go to a formal event where I felt assured in my gender”
Samantha Ann Burnside, 30, Webb City, Mo.
I chose to go to the Pride prom because a lot of my friends were going. I love any excuse to dress up, and I had just the right dress for the occasion – a late 70s prom dress that I restored myself!
I especially loved seeing everyone dress so beautifully, wearing clothes and styles that they might not have been able to wear to their high school proms. We all live in small towns and most of us lacked the ability to be ourselves during our public school days.
Attendees were a diverse crowd of lovely people: lesbian and gay couples, non-binary guests and trans people. Almost every representation of the LGBTQIA+ alphabet was present – not too bad for a Pride Ball in small town Kansas!
I was afraid to go to prom at first because of nerves. But in the end, it was a wonderful time, and I felt so rewarded to go to an official event where I felt assured in my kind. These opportunities don’t come around often enough!
“It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time”
Amari Callaway, 26, Philadelphia
I co-hosted a queer prom last summer through my queer skate team Rolling with the Homos. We did some fundraising and were able to throw a super fun night for our community! The first half of the evening was a kind of “cocktail hour” organized in a brasserie which one of our members is co-owner, with music, meetings and a photo booth installation.
The second half of the evening was spent at a local roller rink, where we skated and danced in our ballroom finery. It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time, especially with the pandemic, and it was a wonderful makeup prom experience for many of our members who didn’t attend their proms or live like their more authentic when they first attended the ball.
“We were able to provide a space where people knew they would not be judged”
During the past academic year, I joined the Planned Parenthood Generation Action at the University of South Florida E-Board as the event coordinator, and the organization was hosting its first-ever Queer Ball. in April. With this event, we were able to provide a space where people knew they wouldn’t be judged if they came as themselves and brought whoever they wanted.
By creating this safe space, we affirmed an aspect of their identity that traditional high school dances overlook and sometimes even reject. As a queer person of color, it was soothing to hear conversations around me (including, “I’ve never met another queer Indian before”) and to create a space where people who felt invisible people could find other people like them and know that they have a support system – even if they didn’t grow up with such a system.
“Being outside and proud is an achievement in my eyes”
Hayley Ianna, 23, Pittsburgh, Kansas.
I will never forget my time at the Pride Ball. I’ve always dreamed of going to a ball like the ones I watched in the movies in Australia. When I moved to the United States to do my master’s, my wife and I were thrilled that my school and town were hosting a prom dedicated to our community. I was a locked down lesbian in Australia, and being proud and proud is an achievement in my eyes. It’s so important to be able to be who you are on a night you’re meant to remember and dream about forever.
I hear stories of trans kids or LGBTQIA+ kids who aren’t allowed to attend their school proms and then end up with a sour taste in their mouths about prom. The Pride Ball which was hosted by QSpace Pitt and Pittsburg State GSA helps take away the bitter taste many my age may have. It also gave people like me, who realized who they were and grew proud after high school, a chance to relive a moment of youth you never thought you’d get.
Photos courtesy of Molly Hottle, Riya Choksi, Preston Hamilton/Washington Post Illustration.