This May marks the end of my first decade as a full-time college teacher. I've been moving in school calendars for virtually all of my 41 years, minus the first few before kindergarten and two eventful years between college and graduate school; I'm basically in the 35th grade this year. My circadian rhythms are set to the steady hum of semesters and summers, and May always marks that big transition where another round of students graduates and I exhale before starting up another summer school session. They all stay the same age, but I keep getting older.
I began this year's season of transition at Baltimore's third annual LGBTQ youth prom, for students from 14-19 and their supportive allies. I was a big fan of school dances in junior high school, but I missed all the high school dances, and no, I never went to prom. I asked a boy to the May Queen dance my senior year, but he turned me down. His name was Olen, and he was the smartest guy in school. When the rest of us were making dioramas out of shoeboxes and pipe cleaners and learning the recorder, he was building elaborate clay sculptures and taking private violin lessons. In high school he somehow avoided the Loser label that stuck to the rest of us a-little-too-smart-for-our-own-good students and actually turned out to be kind of popular.
I don't know why I thought he'd agree to be my date to a dance. He ended up turning me down for the most esoteric of reasons. We'd read Hermann Hesse's novel "Siddartha" in English class that year, and it had spurred in Olen an existential crisis. Why was he, why were any of us, trodding the set road before us? What were such trifles as "prom" or "graduation" when only by following one's unique, individual path could one ever hope to find enlightenment? My pleas of "but it'll be fun" fell on deaf ears, though I shudderingly remember trying to talk him into it for a full 30 minutes on the phone. This wasn't what happened to the nerdy girls in movies when they finally scrounged up the courage to go to a dance. Instead of a makeover scene and the magical conversion of years of self hate turning into confidence I got another night at home with my twin sister, heads on either side of the couch, TV tuned to QVC, old before we even got to be young.
Fast forward to college where I learned from my feminist theory professor that I too could become a lesbian. What great news! I celebrated by shyly sucking on unrequited crushes and sitting outside the queer dances held at the campus across the street until I finally figured out that for some girls, doing really well on your homework was a massive turn on. I started making out with a girl from my delightfully named course "Discourses of Desire," and the next thing I knew I was on the planning committee for Barnard College's first Gay Prom, and I had a date on lock.
I got a dress from a thrift store that made me look mature and a little glamorous. My sister bought me a corsage that my best friend—one of those straight-but-not-narrow types willing to try a thing or two—slipped on my wrist. I wore makeup and felt like a Real Girl as I headed to the dance to meet my date. And then I left with someone else. Best prom ever.
Fast forward 25 years and I got to go to prom again. Artists Rachael Shannon and Olivia Robinson and I were invited to bring our Lesbian Popcorn Cart to prom—a no-brainer YES. We loaded up our cart, our popcorn, our toppings (Braggs and nutritional yeast for the lesbian purists amongst us, Old Bay and salt and pepper for the rest of y'all), and our popcorn bags with stories from Baltimore's queer history printed on the back and met up at the Lord Baltimore Hotel for a trip to the "Enchanted Forest."
I got there early from work, popping mints and worrying security would smell the alcohol on my breath from my happy hour beer and kick me out. They didn't, so I helped set up our get up in the corner of the ballroom where bucking all expectations, queer youth began arriving early. The space itself was magnificent—all gold leaf and marble, chandeliers and fancy sashes. The buffet featured a pasta bar with a zillion toppings so we could all carb load before the dancing began. The Charmery showed up with ice cream and sprinkles, and I felt myself in that old high school worry that we weren't going to be popular enough. Who wants popcorn when they could have ICE CREAM?
Turns out lots of people want both, so we had a good line for the next hour or so as kids got dessert or ruined their dinners. We encouraged everyone to read their popcorn bags, pass them onto a friend. This prom, that it could happen at all, is because of all the work not only of this year's kick ass prom committee, but also the decades of activists who pushed and still push for equity and justice for queers everywhere. Let's all take a moment and say thank you not only for this night, I thought, but for all the nights that weren't beautiful, or were beautiful in hard ways, for bringing us to this magical prom.
And then we headed upstairs for the show and then more dancing. I jumped up and down with everyone else as Lady Gaga's 'Born This Way' echoed through the halls. I wasn't born this way, not even close, and I don't think we have to be born any particular way to get prom if we want to have prom, but at that moment, all smiles and full of popcorn and ice cream and certainty that I could get laid at the end of the night if I wanted to, probably—a certainty my high school self would have found exceedingly unlikely—I didn't care. We have prom now, and that's pretty fucking great.