In the heat of the annual prom action that invades the city, Radio Arte continued their tradition to offer LGBT youth in Chicago not only a safe space, but a great party. The bustling crowd swaying with the music of hot pop and salsa emanated a positive energy that affected every person in attendance at this year’s Queer Prom.
Tania Unzueta, the event coordinator, said that Queer Prom was created to commemorate the triumphs of LGBT teens and young adults in a safe environment within their community. “There aren’t a lot of spaces for gay teens to connect that aren’t alcohol related or on the South Side. We want to provide a feeling of community, an event that identifies the Latino community, the gay community and Pilsen as a neighborhood.”
The Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health also contributed to the safe vibe by educating youth about safer sex practices, offering free condoms and informational brochures. “This is the first year that we’ve offered free HIV testing at the prom. The kids have been participating”, Tania said proudly. “We want to make this a great social and personal experience for them.”
Queer Prom is a product of a casual conversation Tania and Jorge Valdivia had in 2004 about the issue of creating a refuge for LGBT teens to celebrate their coming of age. “I just thought, ‘Hey, why don’t we have a queer prom?’ We ran with the idea and made it happen!” That spring, the first Queer Prom was held at the Museum of Mexican Art with the theme, Noche de Arcoiris (Rainbow Night). The event is sponsored by Homofrequencia, the only Spanish language radio show created by and for LGBT youth in the nation. In an address to the audience at this year’s prom, one member of Homofrequencia’s team said, “this event is dedicated to everyone. Let’s have fun!”
The purpose of Queer Prom, as envisioned by its creators, is to invite people from all walks of life to join in the celebration of freedom of choice. “We chose to use the word ‘queer’ because it encompasses multiple identities. We want everyone to feel welcome.” Unzueta said. “And ‘LGBT Prom’ just sounds lame.”
This year’s theme, Amor sin Fronteras (Love without Borders), clearly voices the hope for equality and respect for LGBT individuals. But, as Tania points out, the focus is more about creating an open dialogue for youth to discuss issues concerning family, relationships, health, violence and discrimination. “Every year it gets better and better. We get more teens coming out because they don’t feel intimidated for attending a prom with a same-sex date or because they challenge gender expectations. It’s great to see people willing to make this an environment that fosters understanding within our Latin@ communities and beyond.”
Stephanie, 19, drove two hours to attend Queer Prom and said it was well-worth the journey, “It’s so beautiful! They made the space feel like a real prom. I love the freedom of being able to dance with who ever I want without feeling ashamed like I would at other dances.” This was a sentiment echoed by other attendants. Leroy, dressed beautifully in sequins and classy heels, exclaimed, “this is great, it’s just lovely! everyone is as open as possible!”
The event attracted LGBT youth from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Marion, an African-American fashion design student, said “I love the diversity! Very seldom do you have people from different backgrounds coming together to celebrate something like this. Everybody’s enjoying each other’s company.”
The cultural significance of holding the event at one of the premier museums of Latino art in the United States was appreciated by guests as well. Rae Wright, a volunteer, said that, “affirming to have this event in such a culturally rich place is one of the best ideas I’ve encountered. It’s a union of all walks of life, celebrating identities regardless of age or race, all for gender justice.”
Andres, 20, welcomed Queer Prom as, “something new from a community becoming increasingly open minded about gay rights. I wish there were more events like this one because it’s difficult to find events or clubs that are for the 18 to 20 age group. This lets me enjoy myself, as myself. It’s great.”
As the night drew to a close, the crowd gathered to hear who would be nominated as the Queer Prom’s King and Queen. The Master of Ceremonies awarded the titles to the “Queers with the most cheers”, inviting the crowd to elect their favorite from the nominees. Applause and ovations erupted from the crowd for each candidate until the winners, Queen Alex and King Ruthie, were finally chosen. They celebrated their election with a dance to cumbia and house music mixes with excited friends, sharing in a night of love for themselves and for each other without boundaries.