When Alberta ordered a shutdown of all schools and non-essential businesses in March, students were stripped of their resources, connections and daily routines. Those who anticipated ending their four years of high school with a celebration had to accept that they wouldn’t be walking across a stage to accept their diploma or dancing with their friends at prom. But it was these circumstances that pushed two Grade 12 students from Lacombe, Alberta, to create a more inclusive, celebratory space for diverse bodies in high schools across the province.
Since the March lockdown, soon-to-be graduates Laurell Pallot, 17, and Lily Overacker, 18, have been developing and organizing a digital Pride prom for Alberta students to be held on June 26. The event, organized for LGBTQ2 students and allies in Alberta ranging from Grades 9 to 12, is meant to “highlight the end of the year in a safe space,” Pallot says.
“With everything happening, there just wasn’t really a chance of an in-person event,” Overacker says. “So we started thinking about what we could do for our community and with our friends.”
The pair teamed up with Hilary Mutch, LGBTQ2S+ community development coordinator at Calgary’s Centre for Sexuality, to organize the Pride prom, launching an Instagram page and website in May. The event will be hosted in multiple Zoom call rooms with varying themes by six different organizational sponsors, and Pallot and Overacker are making an effort to accommodate for the diversity within the LGBTQ2 communities. One of the rooms will be a higher energy “party room,” but there will also be a “chill room” for students feeling overwhelmed by certain activities. Other options include a student runway show to show off prom attire and a more relaxed reading room. “The idea of creating a space where kids can find something that they connect with and that they want to be a part of for that celebratory time, that’s not necessarily dancing or loud music but something maybe quieter, something that fits them, is really important to us,” Overacker says. She and Pallot have also created a community guidelines section on their website that must be signed and followed by all attendees.
Among the night’s main events is a “Prom Court” to replace the popular prom king and queen title, inspired by BuzzFeed’s queer prom in 2017. Students can apply for the title of “Prom Royalty” through the Alberta Pride Prom website, and the winner will be picked based on their community involvement and accomplishments. “It’s highlighting the work that the graduates, especially LGBTQ2S+ graduates, have done in their community,” Pallot says. “We’re going to have a panel that chooses based on what they’ve done and highlighting those voices.” The Prom Court also helps celebrate the gender diversity within the community and those who don’t connect with heteronormativity or the idea of a king and queen.
Having prom take place over Zoom reduces some of the pressure queer folks may feel attending their average high-school prom in person. Because it’s online with other willing attendees, there’s not as much concern about parents, faculty members or peers. “Grad and prom are these events that are really made to be this huge deal and this culmination of high school years. And we know that high school years can be really challenging for queer youth,” The Centre for Sexuality’s Mutch says. “So when we make that final celebration about inclusivity and about celebrating all of these diverse bodies and identities that exist in our school system in Alberta, then it changes the narrative about high school having to be this experience that’s isolating and unsafe.”
But this month not only marks the end of high school for students—it’s also Edmonton’s 30th anniversary of Pride (though the festival was cancelled last year). Prides in cities across the province have been cancelled due to COVID-19, and many queer people are struggling to celebrate as a unified group. That’s especially true for queer and trans students, who are limited in how they can celebrate alongside their community and who may feel unsupported in their homes or disconnected from their friends and community. It’s why Pride Prom is so important: It’s an opportunity for students to reconnect with their peers in an accepting and safe space. “I think it can be really challenging for LGBTQ2 youth who are in homes that aren’t supportive or not feeling safe or comfortable to express themselves,” Mutch says. “I think having moments of feeling connected and feeling in touch with your community can really provide some respite from those feelings of isolation and loneliness. And I think it has been uniquely challenging for our communities to feel that connection.”
Overacker and Pallot are encouraging students across the province to apply and attend the digital event. Not only can students feel less alone in knowing their community is larger than they think, but the pair hopes it will also help connect recent graduates to queer folks in their future university towns. It’s personal for Overacker and Pallot, who are both going to university in different cities in Alberta outside of Lacombe, just over an hour’s drive from Edmonton. This event, they hope, will serve as an opportunity for them and students alike to connect with and meet LGBTQ2 community members across Alberta, making their transition to post-secondary more comfortable. “It’s so important to have a resource for kids to reach out to,” says Pallot. “Even if it’s as simple as something like prom, to feel like there’s people out there and that they have a safe space and they have support.”