A different kind of prom
Traditional school dance for gay, lesbian youths marks 31st year of providing an atmosphere of acceptance
Sarah-Elizabeth Poller, 16, could not imagine a school administration more supportive of gay students.
At the Arlington School, a small, private institution in Belmont, posters on the walls espouse tolerance. Students are encouraged to get involved with the Gay-Straight Alliance. Some teachers are openly gay or lesbian.
Even so, Poller had one reaction when she considered attending her school’s prom: No way.
Instead, she will attend another prom on Saturday night - the oldest and largest one for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youths in the country.
It’s not that she would be worried about being harassed or bullied at her school prom. But the prom organized by the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth just seems - well, like more fun.
“It’s so welcoming on all ends,’’ Poller said. “You don’t feel awkward for being who you are.’’
Thirty-one years after the youth prom for gay, bisexual, and transgender teenagers was established, students and organizers say the appeal of the event endures, even in an age when their sexual and gender identities have become more widely accepted.
Grace Sterling Stowell, executive director of the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth, said the prom’s come-as-you-are vibe continues to draw huge crowds.
“You don’t have to be out as the one pioneer,’’ Sterling Stowell said. “You’re one of many.’’
Since its inception in 1981, the LGBT youth prom was an alternative to traditional high school proms, a “safe space’’ for teenagers who feared harassment or violence if they attended their high school prom with a same-sex date.
What started out as a potluck dinner with a few dozen teenagers in a church basement grew, with the blessing of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, into an annual extravaganza held in City Hall that typically attracts more than 1,000 young people.
But now, with schools enforcing zero-tolerance policies on bullying, teenagers say that their concerns about violence or name-calling at a prom, or even being barred from attending, have ebbed and been replaced with a more subtle anxiety: Who wants to be the one awkward gay kid at the prom?
“It’s not the same to be part of the one out gay or lesbian couple, or one of two or three,’’ Stowell said. “It takes a brave person to do that, even when there’s reasonable acceptance or support.’’
Karter Blake, 22, of Roxbury, will be the prom king at this year’s Boston Alliance prom, which is open to people 22 years old and under.
In 2008, at the end of his senior year at the Dorchester Education Complex, he had considered going to the school prom. Blake, who identified as a lesbian at the time, was out of the closet with friends and teachers at the school, and there were other gay students.
But Blake imagined attending the prom in a spiffy tuxedo, while friends pressured him to wear a dress. He backed out - and it wasn’t until 2010 that he discovered the citywide prom for gay, bisexual, and transgender students.
“It was really big for me,’’ Blake said. “It was my first prom. I had a date - she dressed up. It was just a lot of fun.’’
For some, the prom at City Hall is a less stressful, less expensive alternative to the traditional school formal. Attendance does not require a corsage, full-length ball gown, corsage, stretch limo, or professional photos.
“Actual high school proms are more like, who’s with who, what dress are you wearing, who’s your date, what are you doing afterward,’’ said Iarce Hernandez, 21, of Jamaica Plain. “At the BAGLY prom, it’s there for you to have fun, not to judge anybody else, just to enjoy yourself.’’
When these teenagers do attend their high school prom, they are often propelled by a sense of obligation.
Allain Cherenfant, 20, graduated from City on a Hill in Roxbury in 2010. He went to his senior prom and had a good time, he said, though he didn’t feel comfortable dancing with his date.
“I didn’t want to regret not going,’’ Cherenfant said.
Hernandez, who is this year’s runner-up for queen of the Boston Alliance prom, said she will be showing up at City Hall on Saturday in style. She has a dress picked out - short, aqua blue, paired with heels and an elegant hairstyle.
It will be different from her high school prom at Boston Arts Academy, which she called “more of a tragedy than a dream.’’
She said her school was very supportive of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students, “and I had tons of friends. But the proms weren’t really what I expected them to be.’’
No one teased her, called her names, or made fun of the fact that she was wearing a dress. But she didn’t have a date, and most guys weren’t interested in joining her for a dance.
“Even though I knew I wouldn’t feel comfortable or anything, it was still my high school prom,’’ Hernandez said. “And even though I came alone, I was still going to look gorgeous, and I was still going to have fun.’’
This year, at the Boston Alliance prom, she said, things will be different. There will be plenty of people waiting to ask her for a dance.