An Adult Queer Prom Gave Me the High School Dance Experience I Never Had
LGBTQ-friendly proms are a chance to redo something we couldn't enjoy the first time. Here's why they may not be around much longer.
At first glance, my 2009 senior prom photos are the picture of happiness. There I am, standing next to my date with a smile on my face. But looking back on it now, I can see my smile is fake. My shoulders are tense. And I’m barely allowing my date to put his arm around me.
The truth: I was far from thrilled on prom night. The $20 thrift-store dress I originally loved paled in comparison to the sparkly, $400 gowns some of my classmates wore. And I hated the sticky, tight ballerina bun my grandmother pinned to my head with way too much hairspray. But the biggest problem wasn’t how I looked.
Prom night came at the end of a confusing two years for me. It started with Bridget, the star of my school’s drama club when I was 16. For some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Then there was Elspeth, whom I had met at writing camp the summer before. I remember thinking she had the cutest smile and trying to sit close to her on group outings. And there were more girls — some who wandered into my path only for a few moments, some who snuck into my head every day as we sat in classes, and some who kissed each other on TV and stirred feelings I wasn’t ready to name.
Every (p)rom-com I’d seen told me that being asked to prom — by a guy — was the ultimate goal. So imagine my surprise when a boy asked me to prom, and I wasn’t excited. But I said yes, and when prom night came, I spent a lot of time in the bathroom trying to avoid him.
Nearly eight months later, I was drunk on a friend’s dorm room floor when I said aloud for the first time: “I think I like women.”
Ten years later, I got a chance to do prom right. This time with my girlfriend on my arm. Recognizing that many young LGBTQ+ people have prom experiences like mine (or worse), Hinge partnered with the It Gets Better Project to throw a do-over dance: an adult prom during Pride month at one of Brooklyn’s most well-known clubs, with all proceeds going to It Gets Better.
“We thought it could be cool to redo prom for people who didn’t have a great experience because of all the norms around typical, heteronormative prom,” Justin McLeod, founder and CEO of Hinge, told me. “We wanted to allow people to show up authentically.”
Allowing people to feel comfortable in their sexualities and gender identities means getting rid of many of the trappings of traditional prom. Instead of a King and Queen, the party's host, who happened to be Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, crowned a gender-neutral prom court via a dance competition. Two queer men (both wearing fabulous heels) took the title — one, Carlos, told me he knew his signature split would get the win.
The bathrooms at the event were gender-neutral, and there was no dress code. People showed up in everything from ripped jeans and floral shirts to full gowns, and I counted at least five silver-sequined suit jackets. While I wore a dress I could have easily worn to my first prom, many women showed up in suits or button-down shirts over slacks. “I’m dressed sort of masculine, and if I did this in high school…” Renee Hirt, who wore black pants with a white button-down and rainbow bowtie, said to me. Her friend, Hayley Smith, continued, “If she had worn pants to our prom, it would have been the talk of the town, and not in a good way.”
Hirt and Smith have been best friends since going to the same high school in the conservative town of East Hampton, NY. While they’re both queer, neither one was out of the closet during their first prom. “If I had brought a girl to prom it would have been such a big deal,” Hirt said. “And I don’t want it to be a big deal.”
She has reason for that worry. In 2010, a few years before Hirt and Smith’s high school prom, a Mississippi high school student was banned from wearing a suit and bringing her girlfriend to the dance. Constance McMillian sued her school for discrimination through the American Civil Liberties Union and eventually won, but not until months after prom had come and gone — sort of.
Rather than allow McMillian to bring a same-gender date and wear a suit, her school canceled prom and left planning for a private party up to parents and students. The parents’ association then organized two proms: one normal prom for everyone and one decoy prom for Constance and five other students who showed up.
That story not only spurred nationwide debate about the rights of LGBTQ+ students, but also seemingly inspired a Tony-nominated musical called, aptly, The Prom.
Experiences like mine and Constance McMillian’s are exactly what pave the way for adult proms parties. Many LGBTQ+ adults missed out on formative experiences because we were in denial about our sexualities and gender identities, weren’t yet aware of them, or were either too afraid or banned from expressing them in high school. Ask, and most queer people who came out in their 20s and beyond will tell you they felt like they regressed to their teenage years when they stepped out of that closet. We have to relearn how to date, how to flirt, how to be in a relationship, and many other things that most people figured out in high school.
Why wouldn’t we also jump at a chance to go to prom again, wearing the clothes that make us feel most ourselves?
Yet, this thrill of a childhood do-over may not be made to last. When The Prom playwrights first wrote a show about a young girl fighting against prejudice to bring her girlfriend to the school dance, it felt relevant. But that was eight years ago, before marriage equality was legalized nation-wide and before LGBTQ+ high schoolers started coming out in droves. When the show debuted on Broadway this year, the creators worried that it would be obsolete.
In 2017, millennials were deemed the queerest generation, thanks to a GLAAD survey finding that 20 percent of millenials identified as LGBTQ+. Yet, a year before, Generation Z — people born between 1995 and 2010 — were described by Vice as “queer af.”
Teens nowadays are both more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ themselves, and more likely to know someone who is queer or who has a nonbinary gender identity than people in older generations, according to one 2016 survey of 1,000 people ages 12-19. In the survey, 56 percent of Gen Zers said they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, and more than half (52 percent) identify as something other than totally straight. In rural areas, the statistics might not be so drastic. But this data does indicate some collective momentum toward inclusivity.
“In 10 years, I would like to think that there won’t be a need for adult proms,” says Brian Wenke, executive director of the It Gets Better Project. “The goal here is that proms become 100 percent inclusive and adult proms will exist for sheer entertainment value and nostalgia.” He believes we can get there, but we’re not quite there yet.
For now, those of us who get the opportunity to relive prom can revel in the experience. When I look back at photos of my girlfriend, Meredith, and I for Hinge’s prom, I see a woman who’s truly happy. In one picture, I gaze up adoringly at Meredith, who looks amazing in the suit and tie she never got to wear to her high school prom. And even though she moved her face just as my roommate captured the shot — turning her head into a blur — I know this is a prom photo I’ll treasure. I even got those silky waves I wished I had the first time.