Out At The Prom

Allen Wolff readied himself for prom like millions of other teenage boys. On the afternoon of May 25, the 17-year-old from Syracuse, New York, showered and shaved, leaving intact a thin goatee, donned a rental tux and silver vest, then coated his normally spiky locks with a generous portion of hair gel.

After escorting his date into the balloon-enhanced splendor of the Baker High School prom, he enjoyed a night that he later described as "absolutely amazing." "We danced, ate chocolate covered strawberries, chocolate chip cannolis, and drank lots and lots of soda," he reported. Yet unlike the other boys at the dance, the date on his arm was not a winsome girl in a graceful dress, but Misko Lencek-Inagaki, a boy in a black tux and silver bowtie.

Allen and Misko are joining peers from Wisconsin to West Virginia in revolutionizing the traditional high school prom. More gay teens than ever are turning out for this year's big night in gowns and tuxes--or gowns and gowns, or tuxes and tuxes. But instead of sparking controversy, schools across the country are welcoming them. "It's exploding," says Alice Leeds, a spokesperson for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a nationwide advocacy group known as PFLAG. Brenda Melton, president of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), says that it has become almost commonplace in urban and suburban areas for a student to bring a date of the same sex to the prom--and that in most schools, it's really no big deal.

Today's school administrators say they want an event that's welcoming for everyone. In fact, officials are vastly more concerned about "bellybuttons and low-cut outfits" than whether a student is holding hands with a member of the same sex. Ritch Savin-Williams, a psychology professor at Cornell University who has been studying gay and bisexual teens for three decades, says he used to clip news articles about the rare teen who dared to out him or herself at prom. Now, he says, "I don't even cut them out anymore because it's no big deal. Now it's like 'eh, who cares?'"

Such indifference is a reaction gay teenagers in earlier generations could only dream about. In 1980, a Rhode Island youth named Aaron Fricke had to fight all the way up to the U.S. District Court for permission to bring a friend, Paul, to the Cumberland High School prom. Although the court ruled that making a statement about sexuality is federally protected free speech, the date was still considered so scandalous that it made national headlines.

But when Sophia Lanza-Weil arrived at her Portland, Oregon prom a few weeks ago, it garnered barely a notice. "She wore a suit but I wanted to wear a dress," said Lanza-Weil, who shared the night with her girlfriend, Adriyn Hayes. "We've been dating for over a year. So I don't think it was a big shock to anyone that we walked through the door....We actually had a very good time."

Over the last few decades, a significant shift has taken place in how society views lesbians and gays. In contrast to past decades--when images of homosexuals were either crude stereotypes or non-existent--today people with alternate sexual orientations appear everywhere from MTV to The New York Times' wedding announcement pages. Even if homosexuality is not fully accepted, it's at least acknowledged, making it far easier for young gay people to identify themselves as such.

As a result, kids are coming out at younger ages: One study by Cornell University's Savin-Williams puts the average age of first self-identification at 16 for males and 17 for females, down from the early-to-mid-twenties in the 1970s. Also, high school clubs that promote awareness of gay issues--and which also offer gay and bisexual teens a safe place to be themselves--are flourishing throughout the country. Kevin Jennings, a former history teacher who sponsored one of the first Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) in 1989 in Concord, Massachusetts, now heads a national association of the clubs, called GLSEN, which includes more than 1,750 affiliates in all 50 states, up from 900 in 2001. Armed with support and validation from these clubs, kids are demanding the full privileges of their straight peers. "Prom is the central social ritual of high school life, and anyone who goes to high school knows that," says Jennings. "For [non-straight] students, it's an important symbol of whether or not they're really part of a community. They don't want just a 'separate but equal' prom. They want to be part of the main prom, too."

School administrators seem to agree that there's no reason these kids shouldn't be themselves. "I went to the administration and asked if it was all right if I wore a tuxedo and went to prom with a girl," said Jennifer Vaught of Aurora, Colorado. "They said, 'All right, sure,' ... It was kind of funny, when we first got to prom [my date Ashley and I] had to go to the bathroom. When I walked in there, everybody stopped putting on their makeup and looked at me strange. Then I told them, 'It's all right, I'm a girl, too.' And they were like, 'Phew!'" Nick Burrows, a junior at North High School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, said the biggest problem he faced at the prom was from disbelieving peers. "Some of them were kind of confused, trying to figure out whether it was a joke or something like that," says Burrows, who attended with a friend named Andy. "But most people either know me, or already know [that I'm gay] so it wasn't really a big deal."

Despite the fact that members of Gen Y may be at ease watching two male classmates boogie down on the dance floor, it remains too taboo for many people to accept. In May, the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project received a phone call from a troubled bisexual girl in Utah who went to the prom and danced with her girlfriend until a teacher asked them to leave midway through the night. "Their prom has a promenade where everyone is introduced. They were in line to do the [walk] when the teacher tapped one of them on the arm and said 'You're not a boy!' and kicked them out," says ACLU's Paul Cates. "The girls were very upset."

But kids who dare to out themselves at prom say they're receiving expressions of support, too. "At one point, this girl came up to us and by the look on her face, I'm thinking, 'Oh God, here it comes,'" recounts Allen Wolff. "Instead she said, 'I'm proud of what you guys are doing. It really takes guts. I support you all the way.' That was just amazing." Amazing indeed.