Purple flower petals lined the hallways and elevator, while green and purple balloons and lavender plants hung along the walls and ceilings. Guests strolled into the room dressed in their best attire, some in flowing gowns, halo crowns and angel wings.
About 90 attendees, mainly Detroit-area high schoolers and college students, gathered at Mexicantown’s Plaza Del Norte Welcome Center Aug. 13 for a night to remember. The theme: “Enchanted Forest.”
While the event looked like a traditional high school prom, it was intended to be a departure from that rite of passage: an occasion where Detroit’s LGBTQ students could celebrate with their communities and be themselves, away from the sometimes harsh spotlight of school.
“We wanted to make a safe space for queer youth to be able to express themselves in a way that you wouldn’t be able to do in a traditional prom,” said Bianca Meza, 17, a senior who attends school in Detroit and one of the event’s organizers.
A youth organizer with Congress of Communities, a Southwest Detroit nonprofit group, Bianca co-founded and helps run the Lavender Society, a youth-led LGBTQ+ club.
For queer youth, Bianca noted, a traditional school prom can be an alienating experience. Students run the risk of being outed unwittingly or being ostracized by peers if they hold their partner’s hand.
For Bianca and their peers, the “Queer Prom” was a chance to do prom their way.
The event follows a recent series of legislative actions seeking to roll back rights for queer and trans youth. In statehouses across the country, conservative legislators have proposed hundreds of bills this year targeting LGBTQ people and particularly transgender youth. In Michigan, GOP lawmakers advanced a school funding proposal that would have barred transgender athletes from playing on girls’ sports teams.
This spring, Detroit-area youth activists and organizers marched through downtown Detroit to protest Florida’s HB 1557 or “Don’t Say Gay” law, which restricts school discussions about gender identity and sexuality.
“One of the things we’re seeing in different schools and other states is that teachers or administrators are outing kids to their parents,” said Lindsey Matson, who oversees youth organizing for Congress of Communities.
The decision to host Queer Prom over the summer and away from the school environment was intentional, the organizers said. Some queer students may not feel comfortable coming out or identifying publicly at school if they fear being bullied, Matson said, or they may be afraid to attend school dances with their romantic partner.
“The whole point of this was that you could come dressed however you want with whoever you want as a date … being your full, authentic self,’’ said Matson.
Attending an event held by a local community organization not only gives students a sense of anonymity, but it also allows queer youth to find potential friends and allies, said Estefani, a student organizer with Congress of Communities. (Estefani asked to be identified by first name only, citing personal concern over sharing their identity or orientation.)
“The fact that you can see a lot of other queer people in this space together at the same time is amazing, because you only see like one or two people in your day to day life,” Estefani said.
Brooke Solomon graduated from Cass Technical High School in 2020, but didn’t get to attend her high school’s prom due to the pandemic. For Solomon, now a college student at Howard University, attending Queer Prom was a chance to have an experience she figured she missed out on.
“It’s a prom that allows me to be myself,” Solomon said.
As the night went on, guests took to the dance floor as the DJ spun hits from Doja Cat, Lizzo and Bad Bunny. Friends chatted while nibbling on finger food and sipping mocktails. Others made their own corsages. Toward the end of the festivities, a crowd gathered in the middle of the room to catch a live drag show staged by local performers.
Next year, Bianca said, the Lavender Society is hoping to make the event bigger and better.
“I want to be able to start something that can become a more recurring thing,” Bianca said “and be able to lead other queer youth into being not only comfortable with themselves, but being comfortable with sharing their identity with their friends or with other people in their community.”
Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at email@example.com.