When David Kilmnick spoke at Long Island schools in the '90s about growing up gay in the suburbs, a student would inevitably drop a book or shuffle their feet to be the last one in the room. Then they would privately ask, “Is there any place I can go just to meet other people like myself?”
Thursday night's LGBT youth prom in Hauppauge was the answer to that question. The annual event, which is hosted by the LGBT Network, returned to in-person status this year after being held virtually since the start of the pandemic.
The network’s Hauppauge location transformed into a woodland for the Harry Potter-meets-cottage-core theme, chosen by the youth. Students festooned the center with twinkling lights and hanging flowers.
“The whole night is one of the most special things that we do of the year,” said Kilmnick, who founded the LGBT Network nearly 30 years ago.
“You just see the kids, just smiling and free to be, and free to live their true authentic selves with no worries, at least at the prom, of being called a name or being bullied or being threatened by violence," he said. "And that’s the way it should be every day for these kids, but it’s not.”
Clad in traditional prom garb, such as sparkly gowns and tuxedos, as well as woodland-themed attire, similar to what someone dressed as a forest sprite might wear to a Renaissance festival, prom attendees from Long Island, ages 13 to 21, posed for photos, marveled at the décor and danced the night away. Students from 55 Long Island towns and more than half of the island’s school districts attended.
Kilmnick said he expected a little more than 200 attendees, which would rival the inaugural prom in 2001. That event — among the first suburban proms nationwide for LGBT students — attracted 250 attendees and was splashed across international newspaper front pages.
This year’s prom comes as the LGBTQ community continues to grapple with efforts to stifle their inclusion and uncertainty over the stability of their rights.
Last week, the Smithtown library board voted to remove its Pride displays from the system’s children’s rooms, a move that drew swift public outcry and condemnation from community members and elected officials. The board quickly backtracked and voted to restore the displays.
“We have to make sure that we do everything we need to do so that every LGBTQ young person and their family are safe. … The event just shows a tremendous outpouring of support, of visibility, of hope and opportunity, and that’s what tonight is about — and love,” Kilmnick said of the prom. “And in the end, love always wins.”
Malerie Brewster, 21, of Islip Terrace, is a youth counselor at the network, which she calls “a full circle moment.” Just four years ago, Brewster made her way to the network at the urging of a school guidance counselor. The organization served as a safe landing pad for the foster care youth, who aged out of the system.
“I came in here as a troubled kid and came in with no guidance,” she said. Now, Brewster said, she’s helping guide those younger than her who are facing their own obstacles.
Stevie Kelly, 17, of Smithtown, said they didn’t go to their own prom because they wouldn’t feel comfortable or safe being their authentic self. Kelly, who uses they/them pronouns, described the LGBT youth prom as “secure” and a genuinely accepting place filled with a supportive community. Kelly first began exploring their identity as an 11-year-old, when they didn’t have anyone from whom to seek guidance.
“Being a queer kid in middle school, you just feel like you’re the sore thumb,” Kelly said. “I think it’s important that young kids have a place to see older people who are LGBTQ and know they’re not alone.”