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Amid increased activism, teens attend LGBT prom in record numbers

"The eagerness to get more involved in our local communities, that's resulted in more kids coming out," said David Kilmnick, CEO of the LGBT Network.

Youth from throughout Long Island gathered Wednesday at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury for an evening of dancing and fellowship at the 18th annual LGBT prom, sponsored by the LGBT Network. (Credit: Jennifer A. Uihlein)

The official theme was “fairy tale,” but the unofficial one was “come as you are” — and they came in record numbers.

The 18th annual LGBT prom on Wednesday drew its biggest crowd ever, as more than 300 teens came together at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury for a shimmering, colorful celebration of pride with all the classic trimmings of a high school rite of passage.

The LGBT Network, which hosts the prom, said attendance doubled compared to recent years, even as teens said they feel more comfortable going to their schools’ traditional proms. Students, organizers and activists attributed the growth to a renewed push among LGBT teens to build engaged communities that stand up to adversity.

Teens were as likely to wear elaborate costumes like an evil queen and poison apple as they were to wear ballgowns and tuxedos.

“When I went to a school prom, no one freaked out about it. No one was like, ‘Oh! There’s lesbians!’ It was really chill,” said Rachel McKelvey, 15, of Sag Harbor. “But sometimes that can still happen and that fear is still there. Here, it’s safe. That’s what it feels like.”

Students and organizers said attending LGBT prom is about more than just finding a safe space. In a political era where advocates say they worry LGBT rights are at risk and students rally for school safety, prom is a place to find their voice.

“In this climate, things can happen that you’d think would make kids retreat, but they’re starting to realize that if they don’t get involved, if they’re not part of the change, they may retreat their entire lives,” said David Kilmnick, CEO of the LGBT Network. “The eagerness to get more involved in our local communities, that’s resulted in more kids coming out. That’s part of them developing a larger community that’s more united.”

For many students, prom is a cornerstone of high school culture. It’s a tradition that sparkles with perfect dresses and tuxedos, a dream date, a limousine. But that depends on your perspective, and for many LGBT students, that perspective differs from their peers, said Clare Kenny, director of youth engagement for GLAAD, a national LGBTQ rights organization.

Some students may not want to wear the traditionally feminine and masculine outfits associated with prom, or they may feel isolated by prom king and queen roles if they don’t identify with male and female gender norms.

“Prom is still so much representative of the rest of the school,” Kenny said. “When LGBTQ students think about prom, they can’t separate it from the time they were made fun of for their clothes or holding their partner’s hand in the hallway. It doesn’t represent this perfect end-of-year moment for them.”

Students who identify as LGBT or as a gender other than male or female still experience high levels of harassment and discrimination, according to a 2015 National School Climate Survey from GLSEN, a Manhattan-based group that advocates for LGBT students in K-12 schools.

About 20 percent said they’d been disciplined for public affection with their partner when straight students had not, and 21 percent said they’d been prevented from using a bathroom that matched their gender identity in a New York school. Half of transgender students and 17 percent of all LGBT students surveyed said they hadn’t been allowed to use their preferred name and pronouns at school.

No organization keeps track of LGBT proms, but Live to Tell, held in Los Angeles in 1994, is believed to be the first, followed by Hayward Lambda Gay Prom in Hayward, California, a year later. LGBT Network’s LGBT Prom debuted in 2001.

Proms for the LGBT community, sometimes known as queer proms, have grown in popularity in the last several years but are still relatively new for many communities, said Jamey Jesperson, GLSEN’s education associate. GLSEN has seen more of their chapters around the country organizing proms each year, and those proms attract hundreds of students, Jesperson said.

“What we hear from a lot of kids is the difference it still makes to come and see you’re not the only one,” Kilmnick said. “What we saw at the prom was people completely being themselves. It was in the dress, it was in the expression, in the smiles. There was no holding back.”

Angela Laloudakis, 15, of Holtsville, came dressed as a “mermaid space princess,” with a teal gown, purple lipstick and shimmery fish scale-printed gloves.

Laloudakis said it was her first LGBT prom, but not her first formal — she’d attended a school dance in eighth grade wearing the same teal gown that she altered to create her outfit on Wednesday night.

“I saw a picture on Pinterest and it was a similar blue to my dress and I thought, I could change that,” she said. “I feel extremely welcomed here.”

McKelvey said school proms may feel safe, but LGBT Prom feels liberating. LGBT Prom is a place where things like same-sex dates or male students wearing dresses are celebrated. Students don’t have to tone anything down. They don’t have to compromise.

“You go to a prom with kids who say they’re liberal and they think they’re fine with it,” she said. “But the moment you walk in, they whisper about you. They say slurs and think differently of you, and that’s not what happens here.”

Ruby Gruber, 17, recently attended her prom at Lindenhurst High School. It went about as well as any student could hope — she danced with her friends, she was nominated for prom court. But when she heard about the LGBT Prom, she still said, “You better believe I’m going to that.”

Gruber and her girlfriend, Gianna Macias, 17, of Centereach, coordinated costumes for the fairy tale theme, with Macias as a barefoot evil queen in a lacy black ballgown and Gruber her poison apple, in a red shirt and black vest.

“I always feel more comfortable around my own kind of people,” Gruber said. “Like kissing in public, people might give you glares. Here, it’s just another couple kissing. That’s how the rest of the world should be.”

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