The signs of a high school dance were all over Main Street June 28 as happy, rowdy teenagers admired each others' dresses, shared lipstick and cigarettes, and straightened each other’s bow ties.
But this was no ordinary dance. This was the 18th annual Queer Prom, organized by BC’s queer resource centre, Qmunity, to offer queer youth a space to express themselves free from the typical constraints of a traditional prom.
This year’s theme — Total Eclipse of the Queer Prom — inspired sequins and glitter, more than a few pairs of Doc Martens and even a powder-blue tux.
Having found a safe community at Qmunity’s Gab Youth drop-ins, Christopher Rahim came to prom for the first time hoping to meet more queer youth in the city. He was excited to dance with his boyfriend of seven months.
“I usually live my life being discriminated against, and there really aren’t many queer people I see often from where I live,” Rahim says. “I thought that if I came here I’d meet new people that I could connect with.”
He says there are more homophobes than queer people in his neighbourhood, and he often feels isolated. “I live near a church and there’s some homophobic activity, so I have to be very careful of what I say and what I do.”
Tash Wolfe, a Gab Youth worker and prom co-organizer, attended the very first Queer Prom 18 years ago. She says it’s no mystery why youth from all over the Lower Mainland and even Vancouver Island flock to this event.
“It’s the only event that’s around. Other organizations might throw dances, but it’s maybe 30 people, and we get 300,” she says as a bus full of kids from the Fraser Valley arrives.
“These dances have become staples for these youth,” Wolfe says. “A lot of the time they’re youth that used to access our drop-in quite a bit, and they’ve grown out of the drop-in and developed their own community, but they still come back here and dance and celebrate.”
While Queer Prom isn’t exempt from some of the hallmarks of teenaged culture, such as cliques, Wolfe says freedom from many of the usual pressures of high school dances makes for a much friendlier atmosphere.
“Youth are just being themselves and getting dressed up and having a complete blast. There isn’t as much of a pressure to hook up and not as much pressure to go with a date.”
Wolfe says the organizers have learned over time how to give the youth what they want. “We know to keep the kids hydrated; we have good music for them,” she says. “We used to have prom king and queen and door prizes, but the youth really didn’t like it when we turned off the music to do those things.”
Jasmine Addison, 15, and Roan Reimer, 16, met for the first time outside the Heritage Hall waiting for the dance to start and bonded immediately. Both say they came to the prom for the inclusive atmosphere.
“Everyone here is so supportive. People don’t freak out if you’re not wearing a really short black dress,” Reimer says, adding that gender segregation is often par for the course at youth events. They appreciate that there’s no prom king or queen.
“It’s not like, here are the boys and here are the girls,” Reimer says. “It’s like, here’s the gender-variant royal court.”
Reimer is the only out trans person in her public school, but she has a strong support system. “Sometimes people refer to me as he-she or it, but I’ve found a really amazing group of friends, and there are some really great teachers.”
Reimer believes Gab Youth and events like Queer Prom are crucial for youth and need to continue.
Addison has been out for two years and lives with her grandparents because her parents were less than supportive. She says the difference between events at her old public school and events like Queer Prom is huge. She doesn’t go to her high school dances, she says.
“I don’t feel safe there. Last time I went I got flushed in the toilet.”
Here, she says, she doesn’t have to worry. “You can come as you are.”
“Or as who you’d like to be,” adds Reimer.