As the sun was setting May 16, kids from all over the city and suburbs as far away as Lisle arrived at Edwin G. Foreman High School in Chicago's Portage Park.
Some were dressed in flowing silk gowns and dapper tuxedos, some in just as eye-catching combinations of brightly colored T-shirts and pants. Hair was styled in elaborate detail or highlighted in hues of blue and purple. There was no code at this "nocturnal wonderland" ( the event's theme ) mandated by either rigid tradition or more conservative demands.
The atmosphere can only be described as liberated joy during the third annual Chicago Public Schools LGBTQ & Allies prom. It was as if each of the kids had discovered that freedom was something tangible and they wrapped themselves up in the magic of it with peals of laughter that could be easily heard over the intense sounds DJ Duke Supreme created.
When Center on Halsted Youth Outreach Coordinator Precious Davis arrived with her co-star for the eveningChicago personality and performer Khloe, with both dressed in sparkling evening gownsit was as if visiting royalty joined the event. Kids lined up to have their pictures taken with the pair. When Davis asked if everyone in the room was ready to have a good time, the response was deafening. "This event is really special to me because it creates a safe space for LGBTQ youth in Chicago to be who they authentically are," Davis said. "We're setting a pathway for the future for young people in this city."
One of those kids was Rebeca, a senior at Air Force Academy High School who was attending her first LGBTQ & Allies prom. "Our gay-straight alliance [GSA] is, unfortunately, not supported by our principal and multiple staff even though it's widely supported by our cadets," she said of her school. "But tonight is just amazing. I mean the vibe and the environment, it's like finally there is support everywhere I look!" Giron intends to stick with the Air Force after her graduation from North Park University. If the institution does not already have a GSA, she intends to form one herself.
Veronica is a senior at Foreman High School. "It's really exciting to be here," she said with a laugh. "It's just so colorful and there's people from every different school, so it gives me a chance to get to know other LGBTQ kids. This is my prom!"
The unbridled energy that the two and their peers created was so pervasive that even the adult chaperones couldn't help but enjoy themselves. Yousef, the GSA organizer at Lisle Senior High School, brought four of his students with him. "This is our first year having a GSA, so this is fantastic for us," he said. "We're a school of 500 and we had 26 students who first signed up. That's five percent of the school population. We're happy with it and we're developing and establishing the GSA as a productive organization in the school."
The prom is the brainchild of Nicolas Senn Special Education teacher Noa Padowitz and Collins Academy High School social worker A.J. Wieselman, and was borne out of their experience chaperoning kids at Phillips Academy High School. "We noticed that students who had same-sex partners had shown up at the dance with opposite-sex dates," Padowitz recalled. "They were coming to us on the side and asking us to take pictures of them with their real partners."
Sympathetic to the kids who were dejected at their inability to attend the greatest night of the high school lives as themselves and with whomever they chose, Padowitz and Wieselman decided to provide them with a safe space.
"I had been working with GSAs in high schools on the South and West sides of Chicago," Wieselman said. "The communities tended to be so insular and often the students had very little exposure to other LGBTQ youth or culture and we thought this would be an amazing opportunity to bring them together so they can just have a good time."
Padowitz and Wieselman hold the event at a different CPS high school each year, and attendance has been consistently high. "Every time I'm just blown away at the vibe of the event," Padowitz said. "Everyone's friendly and happy and you watch the kids walk in and their jaws just drop. It's unlike anything they've ever been to before. At the end of the evening, they come up to us or Precious and sometimes they're crying, they're so happy. They just say, 'Thank you so much.'"
*Those photographed are 18 and over.