Education, Health, and Safety

Inside queer proms, where LGBTQ adults get a high school re-do

Many say these events offer them a safe and inclusive space to be themselves

Meghan Dengler is a self-proclaimed die-hard romantic. It’s how the 31-year-old explains her fascination with “promposals” — the high school ritual of inviting a date to prom often through elaborate and public gestures.

But she never had that experience. In fact, her prom in 2009 looked a lot different than how she had imagined it — largely because the all-girls Catholic school she attended wouldn’t allow students to bring same-sex dates or arrive solo.

“I just wanted to enjoy the night with my friends and not have to force myself to go with a date that I wasn’t comfortable with,” said Dengler, who identifies as queer.

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On May 14, she finally got the chance to do prom her way. Donning a silvery blue tuxedo vest and shirt, Dengler attended her first queer prom in Tampa with a group of friends.

“It was phenomenal,” she said. “Everyone was just so comfortable there. We danced the entire time.”

Ahead of the event, she even made a series of promposal videos and posted them online. “I wanted to experience it in a way,” she said, “and I felt like this was that way for me.”

The vision behind the queer prom Dengler attended was to offer people a second chance at the night they’ve always wanted, said Holly Winebarger, the founder and director of programming for QFX, which hosted the event. It was also intended as a safe space for the LGBTQ community in Florida, “which is under the attack of anti-queer legislation,” she added.

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“I wanted to know I could walk in that room and see … individuals having a good time dancing with each other and not being gawked at or made to feel awkward,” Dengler said of her experience at queer prom. “And it was so nice to see that, it was so nice to be a part of that.”

With prom season underway across the country, other groups like QFX have been hosting formal events like queer proms to break from the heteronormative traditions that have made school dances a fraught experience for some.

Many in the LGBTQ community say these events offer them 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 prom I wish my younger self had’

Molly Hottle, 33, Seattle

Last June, I went to 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 high school proms to celebrate, skate and get fancy!

When I went to prom in high school, it was all very traditional. I went with a male date and wore the big dress. All of that was fine, but looking back, I know I was trying to fit into a box. The box was like this cliche of what prom is supposed to look like in the catalogues and movies.

As an adult, I attended this prom and be myself. Two of my friends and I asked each other as platonic dates, and we made each other corsages. I wore what I wanted, including my roller skates, put on a literal ton of glitter and extravagant makeup. I wasn’t worried about what others thought of me or fitting into 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 prom I wish my younger self had. It was the prom I wish every young queer person out there could have.

‘Winning prom royalty felt like a scene in a movie’

Simon Graves, 19, Norfolk

The queer prom I attended was hosted by different organizations at my school, Old Dominion University. I chose to go to support a close friend who helped plan the event. I also went because my high school prom was terrible and was less inclusive for queer people.

One of the biggest highlights of my night at queer prom was walking into the venue and feeling welcome by seeing different queer people that attended my school. Later that night, I was crowned Royal Monarch, which intentionally breaks from traditional gender-specific titles like “Homecoming Queen” or “Prom King.” Winning prom royalty felt like a scene in a movie.

‘It is 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 either weren’t comfortable being who we are or it wasn’t safe to be who we are. The idea of going to prom with someone outside of the “norm” wasn’t even a realistic idea. When we heard our friends were having a queer prom, we were so excited because now we have real pride in who we are and couldn’t wait to celebrate. It is always beautiful to see so many people living their truth.

‘I felt so rewarded going 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 get dressed up, and I had just the dress for the occasion — a prom dress from the late ’70s that I restored myself!

I mostly enjoyed seeing everyone dressed up so beautifully, wearing clothes and styles that they may not have been able to wear to their high school proms. We all live in small towns, and most of us didn’t have the agency to be ourselves during our public-schooling days.

The attendees were a diverse crowd of lovely people: from lesbian couples and gay couples, to nonbinary guests and people who are trans. Almost every representation of the LGBTQIA+ alphabet was in attendance — not too shabby for a Pride prom in small-town Kansas!

I was apprehensive about going to the prom at first due to nerves. But in the end, it was a wonderful time, and I felt so rewarded in going to a formal event where I felt assured in my gender. Those opportunities don’t come up often enough!

‘It was the most fun I’d had in a long time’

Amari Callaway, 26, Philadelphia

I co-hosted a queer prom last summer through my queer skate crew Rolling with the Homos. We did some fundraising and were able to put on a super fun evening for our community! The first half of the evening was a sort of “cocktail hour” held at a brewery one of our members co-owns, with music, mingling and a photo booth setup.

The second half of the evening took place at a local roller rink, where we skated and danced in our prom finery. It was the most fun I’d had in a long time, especially with the pandemic, and it was a wonderful makeup prom experience for a lot of our members who either didn’t attend their proms or weren’t living as their most authentic selves when they originally attended prom.

‘We were able to provide a space where people knew they wouldn’t be judged’

This past academic year, I joined the Planned Parenthood Generation Action at the University of South Florida’s E-Board as event coordinator, and the organization was hosting its first-ever queer prom in April. With this event, we were able to provide a space where people knew they wouldn’t be judged for coming as themselves, and bringing who they wanted.

In creating this safe space, we affirmed an aspect of their identity that traditional high school proms overlook and sometimes even dismiss. As a queer person of color, it was healing to hear conversations around me (including, “I’ve never met another queer Indian before”) and to create a space where people who felt invisible were able to find others like themselves and know that they have a support system — even if they didn’t grow up with one.

‘Being out and proud is an achievement in my eyes’

Hayley Ianna, 23, Pittsburg, Kan.

My time at Pride prom was one I will never forget. I have always dreamed of going to a prom like the ones I’d watch in the films back in Australia. When I moved to the United States to undertake my master’s degree, my wife and I were thrilled that my school and town put on a prom dedicated to our community. I was a closeted lesbian back in Australia, and being out and proud is an achievement in my eyes. It is so important to be able to be who you are on a night you are supposed to remember and have dreamed about forever.

I hear stories about trans youth or young LGBTQIA+ people not being allowed to attend their schools’ proms and are then left with a sour taste in their mouth about prom. The Pride prom that was put on by QSpace Pitt and Pittsburg State GSA helps remove the sour taste many my age may have. It also gave people like me, who realized who they were and became proud after high school, a chance to relive a moment of youth we never believed we’d get back.

Photos courtesy of Molly Hottle, Riya Choksi, Preston Hamilton/Washington Post Illustration.

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