OK, a show of hands: How many of you guys went to at least one prom in high school? (For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a “prom” is a once-a-year dance held for either juniors and seniors or just the graduating seniors toward the end of the school year.) All right, now, how many of you went to the prom with your significant other at the time? Cool. Now, how many of you took your significant other of the same sex?
Prom is a pretty big deal for a lot of high-schoolers. Girls will spend several hundred dollars on elaborate hairdos and spangly dresses they will wear exactly once, and guys can be moved to rent tuxedos and purchase completely non-functional decorative items for their girlfriends to wear, like “corsages”, little wrist-flowers so fiddly that they actually tend to impede dancing. (The girl can’t drape her arms affectionately around your neck without constantly poking you in the ear.) For my own senior prom, my friend Val’s mother actually rented our friend group a limousine for the ride to the venue, which was just about the most exciting part of the night for me. There are pictures of me futzing with the stereo.
My memories of prom are pleasant, generally, but not really special. I mean no disrespect to my friend Ashley, who was my date junior year and was very forgiving about my almost total lack of attention to her, but, ya know, going with one of my best girl friends was not really my “ideal”. (I’m sure going with one of her best gay friends was probably not tops on her list either.) My senior year, to save some other girl from the same fate (and also because Ashley had a boyfriend at that point), I went stag, and danced by myself, which in retrospect was a really pathetic thing to do. But I didn’t have a boyfriend and didn’t have any prospects for one – I knew exactly two other gay guys at that point and was interested in neither. Would I have taken another gentleman if I had known one? Probably, if he had been willing. Would I have met with opposition? Honestly, probably not. I was lucky enough to be well-respected among the school administration and well-liked by my peers, enough that I was actually elected Winter Ball King one year. I was out by that time and nobody damn cared, and if they did they knew better than to say anything. During the promenade of royalty, as I walked embarrassedly down the aisle with a girl named Carlyn, I am told someone (possibly Carlyn’s macho and weirdly-threatened-by-me then-boyfriend) shouted “faggot” at me. The people near him turned around and yelled, “Shut the fuck up,” for which I am eternally grateful. But I didn’t hear any of this, because most people were cheering.
Not everybody is so lucky, of course. A girl in Mississippi, Constance McMillen, asked her school for permission to bring her girlfriend as her prom date, and the school said, “No, and by the way, you can’t wear a tuxedo either.” Their response, which requires a few mental gymnastics to completely wrap one’s head around, was basically that the girls could both attend so long as their dates were male and they both wore dresses. I have no idea how they expected to make two lesbians treat men as “dates”, and I haven’t seen anything about whether they would have been “allowed” to dance with each other or what might have happened had they tried. They never got the chance, though, as the school retaliated by canceling prom, saying it had become a “distraction”. Going further, they pretty much publicly blamed poor Constance for it, which caused no small amount of consternation among her classmates, who have made no secret of their anger with her. The school district then encouraged parents to set up a private prom – which, as a non-school-sponsored event, could bar whomever the parents wanted. The parents did so, and Constance was not invited. With the help of the ACLU, she’s suing the school district. How any educators could ever think this was an appropriate way to treat a student is beyond me.
Constance has become something of a household name among well-informed gays, and she’s been on Ellen, where she received a $30,000 scholarship for college and a serious round of applause. A pro-gay-rights group has set up an “alternative prom” in Tupelo, 25 miles away, which isn’t the same, really. And Constance has stated that a lot of her classmates still seem to blame her for the cancellation of the original prom, which is hardly a great way to have your friends and former friends remember you.
Perhaps sensing that denying rights can be more trouble than it’s worth, a Georgia high school told Derrick Martin that he could bring his boyfriend, a decision it took them three months to reach. And he still didn’t really win, because his parents kicked him out of the house once his story started getting media attention. Yes. Out of his own house. He’s staying with a friend and taking the situation with some aplomb.
My senior prom was held on April 8, 2005, just slightly under five years ago. Back then, I thought the idea of me having a boyfriend at all would have been odd – nobody was out. Now, kids aren’t just bringing their dates, they’re bringing their significant others. Of the same sex. How many of you guys did that, again? And not to make a point, but really because you wanted to go to prom with them, free of any political motivation? How far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.
I’m sure you’ve heard this exact same thing eighteen thousand times since your story broke into the national media, but having the courage to ask your school to let you bring your boyfriend to prom is absolutely inspirational. It shouldn’t take courage, it shouldn’t be inspirational, it shouldn’t be any of that – no high-schooler should have to agonize about whether people might look at him askance as he lays his head on another boy’s shoulder while the crappy rent-a-DJ plays that Leona Lewis song from Avatar. But you do, and it is, and I’m profoundly glad that you did so.
It’s amazing how much can change in such a short time – my own senior prom was just five years ago, and I went stag and danced by myself. It’s amazing, as well, how much doesn’t change – I was truly sorry to hear that your parents’ reaction has been less than positive. I’m sure they love you, though, and that it will all settle down very soon.
Until then, you have an absolutely massive community of people you don’t know and probably never will standing up for you, because you’re doing something we never thought we could do ourselves. That few years is the difference between guys like me coming out at 15 and being nervous about it, and guys your age wondering what the big deal is. I’m old enough that I hear how some people talk about us gay folks and it still hurts me to know that so much of the world just refuses to understand. The more I read, though, I realize that the folks graduating from high school now hear that, recognize it as idiocy, and ignore it. That’s a strength I never had, either.
It’s simple, anyway. The last thing I want to say is this: from all of this, from all the attention, you might kind of feel like there’s people who want you to have the prom we never had, for us. My advice? Don’t. Go to prom and have a wonderful time. For yourself and your boyfriend. You deserve it.
(signed) Thor Rudebeck
March 24, 2010
Happy prom, everyone.