Several news stories have recently popped up about LGBT youth fighting for their rights to attend their high school proms. As someone who came of age in a mostly white, mostly middle-class high school, I can understand the challenges queer and trans youth can face in trying to enter the classically heteronormative and gender normative sphere that is The Prom. Teenagers who have stood up for their right to be safe while participating in this school activity, in the face of explicit transphobia and homophobia, have huge potential to inspire and encourage other LGBT youth in similar situations. To this day, I wish I had had an older model of such courage at my high school.
At the same time, part of me responds with skepticism to this media emphasis on queer and trans youth attending proms. This part of me is concerned not with the personal and potential political significance of the act of queers and trans people going to proms, but rather with the allocation of media and political energies. Media hype around prom rights can function to reduce LGBT youth issues and success stories in a similar way that media hype around gay marriage rights can reduce LGBT adult issues and success stories. Is winning gay marriage a valuable political step in terms of federal policy? Quite possibly. Is it the most important and pressing issue facing all LGBT individuals, across the board? No. Was the recent victory over the Scottsdale, Al. school board that attempted to ban two lesbians from attending a high school prom together important? Definitely. Is attending high school proms the most important and pressing issue facing all – or even most - LGBT youth? Absolutely not.
While I think many LGBT groups and individuals do keep this in mind, the reporting on proms that reinforces particular narratives of “success” for trans and queer youth bears examination. The possibility of attending proms only affects youth who attend high school, and continue on with high school once they begin. This depends on numerous factors, many of which are out of a teenager’s control. Among high school students, only those who have the money and resources to purchase the trappings required for a prom (clothes and tickets, for example) and who have living situations (in terms of family/guardianship and location) in which they would be able to attend such school activities are affected by this. Proms are a predominantly middle class issue, and I believe that is important to consider.
I notice an overwhelming absence of “success stories” about queer and trans youth who, for example, experience homelessness and need to do sex work to survive - unless they’ve “cleaned up” according to normative societal standards. There is a tremendous number of LGBT youth successes that are not recognized as such by the general public and by mainstream – or even queer - media. This is disappointing.
The bravery of LGBT students who fight for the right to attend their schools’ proms absolutely must be applauded and appreciated. It is also, however, crucial that we remember that there are many ways to be a successful LGBT youth, in order to avoid invisibilizing the stories of many young people who do not fit these particular narratives. The problems about proms extend beyond whether or not LGBT youth can safely attend them. The implication of even holding a prom, considering the homophobic and transphobic history of the event, warrants discussion. As an educator, one of the most effective ways I can address the valorization of certain LGBT youth narratives over others is to open critical discourse about proms - and what they stand for, and what they do - among my colleagues.