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  WINDY CITY TIMES

A brief history of LGBTQ students and proms
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2018-06-20

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In recent years, many LGBTQ students have attended their high school proms across the country without any "controversy" but that was not always the case due to school officials denying them entry into the annual dance.

"Ever since its creation in the 1920s, prom has been a powerful ritual that shapes the gendered and sexual culture of American youth in ways that typically enforce heteronormativity, or the belief that the only 'good' and 'normal' way to be is a masculine boy who is attracted to feminine girls and vice versa," said Northern Illinois University ( NIU ) Professor Dr. Amanda Littauer.

This left many LGBTQ students without the ability to express themselves in a school-sponsored dance setting, however, a small number of students fought back against these gendered rules as early as the 1950s.

One such case took place in 1980 when Aaron Fricke wanted to take his friend Paul Guilbert to his Cumberland High School ( Rhode Island ) prom. His principal denied the request so Fricke filed a lawsuit. The case, Fricke v. Lynch, went to the U.S. District Court and the court sided with Fricke and also ordered that the school provide security for the couple so they would remain safe while in attendance. Fricke also wrote a book and play about the case, "Reflections of a Rock Lobster."

The case was one of the first legal victories for LGBTQ youth and set a precedent for future disputes. It has been used to counter school officials at public schools who continue to deny students the ability to bring any date or dates of their choosing to the prom.

"The Fricke story reveals the persistence, creativity and resourcefulness of youth who refused to follow the rules imposing heterosexuality and heterosexual rituals upon high school culture," said Littauer.

In recent years, there have been a number of LGBTQ students crowned prom king or queen or been named to the prom court across the country, and not just in the liberal areas.

For the past seven years, Chicago Public Schools ( CPS ) has hosted a queer prom, with the location changing each year. This year's event was held on the South Side, for the first time. According to Chicago GSA Prom co-founder Noa Padowitz, the event has grown in popularity every year.

"CPS allows students to bring any high school-aged partner to prom, however, due to social pressure, some students do not feel comfortable bringing same sex or gender non-conforming partners to their home school's prom," said Padowitz. "The Chicago GSA Prom started to provide CPS students with a safe space to dance with and meet other LGBTQ+ students from around the city."

Now colleges like NIU have gotten into the Queer Prom game. This year's NIU Queer Prom was sponsored by the LGBTQ student support group Prism and took place on March 31 on the college's campus.

NIU senior Margaret Hitchcock had the idea of holding a Queer Prom on campus her freshman year, however, it took until this past school year for it to take place.

"I was so excited to see Queer Prom finally happen," said Hitchcock. "Prism did a phenomenal job at orchestrating a night to remember for all that attended. Queer Prom offered students an opportunity to be themselves and dance the night away."

"Prism's 2018 Queer Prom was the organization's first large event in recent years," said NIU senior and Prism President Ronan Kaiser. "It was a chance for LGBTQIA+ folks from NIU and the Dekalb community to have a safe space to dance and enjoy the evening with their significant others and friends. Prism also crowned Prom Royalty which was voted upon by attendants of the dance. We are hoping to continue to host dances like Queer Prom at NIU.

"One of the main thoughts behind Queer Prom was that many queer students did not get to have a prom experience that they wanted to in high school," said NIU senior and Prism Vice President Gabriel Sonntag. "For example, I went to a Catholic school on the South Side of Chicago. We had to have an opposite-gender date and there was a strict dress code. Since I could not go stag or wear what I wanted, I did not go.

"We had a great turnout at the Queer Prom. We sold around 60 tickets despite it being Passover and Easter weekend. LGBTQ+ students as well as our allies attended. I think Queer Prom was more than just a dance for college students. It was a non-judgmental space for many attendees. They could bring whomever they wanted and wear whatever they wanted. Some people came dressed in formal wear while others were more casual attire. I liked Queer Prom because there was no pressure to conform or wear certain clothes."

"I attended my high school prom with a guy," said recent NIU graduate Sam Lanigan. "It was not a bad experience, but I did not have the opportunity to be my authentic self. So I was thrilled that NIU held a Queer Prom this year where I was able to attend with my fiancée Danielle. She was able to wear masculine clothes for the first time at an event and finally feel comfortable. This made me so happy for her. The best part about the event on the whole was being able to look around the room and know this was a safe space for all of us. It made graduating from NIU this spring even better because I know that I am leaving a place that creates safe spaces for many marginalized individuals."

"We at Prism were so honored to be able to hold Queer Prom at NIU this Spring," said NIU Assistant Professor and Prism Faculty Advisor Katy Jaekel. "While events that center queer individuals are becoming more common, that night, many people shared that this was the first time they had ever been able to attend an event that not only centered queerness, it celebrated it. We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to celebrate and experience this event together."

A number of other entities across the country have held Queer Proms over the years. This year the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago celebrated its 13th annual Queer Prom while the Hartford Gay & Lesbian Health Collective ( Connecticut ) held its 24th annual Queer Prom. Buzzfeed has also hosted two Queer Proms—last year in Los Angeles and this year in New York City.

Lambda Legal, the ACLU and GLAAD have released information for LGBTQ students so they know their rights and will be able to challenge their school or school district on their discriminatory policies around prom attendance.

See www.lambdalegal.org/know-your-rights/article/youth-dances, www.aclu.org/files/assets/Prom_Rights.pdf and www.glaad.org/publications/promkit for more information.


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