‘It Felt Like I Was Wrapped In One Big Hug’: Inside the Chicago Gay and Straight Alliance Prom

Posted June 5, 2018 4:23 p.m. EDT

It is a staple of prom night for a boy to be crowned prom king and a girl to be crowned queen.

But a recent prom in Chicago was not just any prom. There, after Miss Precious Brady Davis, the master of ceremonies, shimmied to the front of the room in a glittering sequined dress and grabbed the microphone, she drew two names out of a glass bowl. Carlos, 16, whose purple hair, fiery red outfit and matching theatrical red makeup seemed to beg for a crown, was chosen as prom queen, and Jovanny, 17, in mint eye shadow, was crowned king.

It was a Friday night and this year’s Chicago Gay and Straight Alliance prom was well underway. Almost 150 high school students from the across the city had gathered on Chicago’s South Side West Englewood neighborhood to celebrate themselves.

To qualify for queen and king, Carlos and Jovanny had submitted their names on a small strip of paper based on the categories they chose — king or queen — rather than the traditional method of competing against people assigned a category based on their sex at birth.

After being chosen, Carlos and Jovanny quickly embraced and began to dance to Beyoncé's “Halo.”

“It felt amazing to win prom queen this year,” Carlos said later. He said he loves opportunities to express his true self through makeup and this year’s prom was the perfect opportunity to blend his budding makeup-wand skills and his community. “When my name was announced, everyone was cheering for me, and it felt like I was wrapped in one big hug,” he said.

The first gay prom reportedly took place in West Hollywood, California, in the early 1990s and was featured in the 1995 documentary short “Live to Tell: The First Gay Prom in America.” Since then, GSA or gay proms have sprung up in Florida, Colorado, Michigan and Virginia, among other states.

The GSA prom is a prime opportunity for a diverse array of young people in hypersegregated Chicago to come together. According to a 2016 poll by The New York Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation, African-Americans and Latinos on the South and West sides of the city are more likely to be dissatisfied than white people on the North Side with neighborhood services like public recreation facilities, transportation and public education.

A citywide dance where students from varying races and economic backgrounds, as well as gender identities and sexual orientations, can come together under one roof is a rare treat from the normal social and cultural divisions.

Despite the growth of gay proms across the country, they remain the exception to most school dances, where LGBTQIA — I for intersex and A for asexual or ally — students can still face serious obstacles.

For example, earlier this year, two teenage boys in the Atlanta area who are a couple made national headlines as they petitioned to be named prom kings against their school administration’s wishes. Last year, Byshop Elliott, then a junior in Buffalo, New York filed a lawsuit against the policing of same-sex couples at school dances.

And most famously, in 2010, Constance McMillen filed a lawsuit because she was not allowed to bring her girlfriend to prom. The lawsuit prompted the school to cancel the prom and two private dances were held (including one, organized by parents, that excluded McMillen).

But those instances did not reflect the mood of the GSA prom in Chicago. Many students traveled more than an hour to get there, from the farthest north and west corners of the city and suburbs to celebrate deep in the heart of the black South Side.

“I want you all to get into formation!” shouted Khloe, a glittery, bedazzled resident drag queen performer, to the teenagers, who had gathered from more than 30 schools.

Kelsi, a senior, helped choose this year’s theme, Candyland, based on Chicago’s first Gay and Straight Alliance prom, held more than eight years ago.

She and some of her friends spent the day decorating the second-floor gymnasium of Robert Lindblom Math & Science Academy, a stately, roughly century-old Beaux-Arts-style public high school, with cutout lollipops and streamers. Last year at school, Kelsi was single and was “only talking to guys.” This year, she arrived with her girlfriend and opted for a quieter prom with her friends.

“It feels great to be myself with a bunch of people who are also in same-sex relationships and feeling like we’re not being judged,” she said.

Everyone knows a good party doesn’t get started until well into the night and this prom was no different. Less than an hour before it was scheduled to end, the students formed a tight circle near the DJ booth at the front of the room to show off their best dance moves to bangers like the ‘90s house party classic “This Is How We Do It” (released well before most of the attendees were born) and Drake’s “Nice for What,” an exuberant, woman-praising anthem for 2018. Nina, 15, who identifies as pansexual, said she was “in love” with Khloe, the resident drag queen performer for each year’s Chicago Gay and Straight Alliance prom. “She’s so beautiful.”

This year’s GSA prom was Nina’s first and she welcomed the chance to attend as an opportunity to celebrate herself, since not everyone in her life knows she is pansexual. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, Nina. Boys this. Boys that.’ I’m like, no, I love everyone,” she said.

Across the dance floor were Leo, 16, and Riley, 16. They had arrived together and were rocking matching rainbow-colored floral crowns. “We like to go to all the gay events,” Leo said. “They’re very fun and everyone’s just so kind.”

Leo, who attended the prom once before, already has plans to make it to next year’s event. “When I go to school dances at my school, it’s mostly just about dancing with really loud bass that makes your heart feel weird,” Leo said. “And this, like everyone is talking to each other and meeting each other and saying nice things.”

Ri, 16, and Elijah, 17, helped Kelsi decorate the space.

“The teachers here are great, understanding, helpful,” Elijah said about attending the high school. Ri agreed, adding, “I’m trans and all of my teachers are like, ‘Cool, I understand that.’ And if people in the class mess up my pronouns, they’ll step in.”

The dress code is decidedly anti-dress code, with students sporting rainbow-colored floral crowns, vintage Champion athletic wear and two-piece ruffled cocktail attire, among other get-ups.

“It isn’t like those stereotypical middle-school dances. You know, where the girls have to wear these skirts or these dresses, the boys have to wear suits,” Ri said. “You can come here in whatever you want. Slay however you want.”

The prom was created in 2001 by Noa Padowitz and AJ Wieselman, who recognized a need among their students during a traditional Chicago Public Schools high school prom.

“CPS has such inclusive policies that it just seemed so strange to us there wasn’t a dance where these kids felt safe or comfortable to come with their preferred date,” said Padowitz, a licensed social worker and the dean of students and Community at Suder Montessori on the city’s Near West Side.

After Padowitz pitched the idea to the principal of her former charter school, she and Wieselman began planning the event in 2012 with a budget of “a few hundred bucks.” Padowitz and Wieselman cold-called area businesses to ask for donations of services and goods.

The first prom was a success, and although Padowitz and Wieselman initially envisioned the event as a one-off, positive word spread and faculty across the city inquired about the next event.

The Chicago Gay and Straight Alliance prom has grown every year since its inception. Organizers structure each prom as a perfect balance of fun and fundamental information. Students receive ample room to party on the dance floor, outside of the gymnasium, and they also have the opportunity to connect with a rotating group of community providers and partners who are dispersing pamphlets for protected sex practices and neon-colored bracelets in equal measure. This year’s partners included the local organizations Youth Empowerment Performance Project and Howard Brown Health, along with national groups like Planned Parenthood.

“It’s hard, it’s a struggle, but it’s amazing. It’s worth it to make a difference in these youths’ lives,” said Malia Santiago, the community engagement coordinator of the Youth Empowerment Performance Project, an organization offering support for homeless LGBTQ youth through the arts. “That’s like my biggest thing, to help people and to use art to do that.”

Santiago’s organization offers ballet, writing and even vogueing classes for free. “It just really feels good to help people learn to heal and deal with their traumas in a healthier way using art,” she said. “Not only to give them healthy tools to deal with their traumas but to build community and create unity in our community, the LGBT community.”

The prom changes locations every year. After years of dances mainly on the predominantly white North and Northwest sides of the city, Lindblom helped move the prom down to the South Side of Chicago. “Lindblom was anxious to host,” Padowitz said.

She had noticed, as the years went by, she said, that “different schools came to the dance when it was at different locations.” That made sense to her, but she also wanted it “to be intentional.” Although most Chicago Gay and Straight Alliance proms take place within spitting distance of public train lines to make the dance financially accessible, Lindblom is about a 12-minute walk from the nearest stop.

To accommodate this challenge, organizers received a grant from the Chicago Public Schools Office of Student Health and Wellness that was used for busing services at eight schools. Students who didn’t attend a particular school were allowed to meet up at one of the “bus stops” along the way to catch a ride.

Inclusiveness across the racial, cultural and financial spectrum is just as important to the organizers as gender and sexuality. “We don’t want it to be a burden,” Padowitz said about the organizing of each year’s event. “We want it to be a pleasure.” Students can purchase tickets as individuals, to avoid the pressure of needing a date. Tickets are sold on a sliding scale, with a maximum cap of $20. “The point is we want students there and that’s it,” Padowitz said. “So if you want to come, we want you to be there because it’s so magical.”

Marz, 16, who attended the prom alone and was sporting a “pan flag,” said: “This is like the coolest prom, ever.” Despite growing up in the area, Marz spent the last two years working eight hours a day clearing trails, building frames, cutting trees and working in the mountains as part of the Montana Conservation Corps. The GSA prom was something of a welcome-back culture shock for Marz.

“At a regular prom, there’s so much heteronormative pressure,” Marz said. At this prom, instead, it was “really fun”: “I’m, like, starting to talk to people and stuff. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make some friends.”

Later on the dance floor, a circle formed and Marz was in the middle of it, being cheered on by a loving group of white, black and Latino students.