Kings And Queens: Queers At The Prom
Do you remember your Senior Prom? Mine was awkward, boring, and definitely not gay. But what I remember most about it was the day after when my best friend, named Charlie, and our dates, Sandy and Joanne, went to Provincetown for the day. That definitely was very gay, fun, and an eye-opener to Charlie and mine’s repressed, suburban mindsets. It was the future, and we both knew we’d be back; though I didn’t learn that he was gay until years later when I wandered into him on Commercial Street, where, coincidently, I also ran into Sandy and her fiancée. Let’s just say at that moment the gig was up.
Those memories came back while reading “Kings & Queens: Queers at the Prom,” David Boyer’s anthology of essays by more than twenty GLBT individuals whose experiences run the gamut from a feisty lesbian remembering attending a prom while a college student in Iowa during the Great Depression to a pair of male high school sweethearts who attended their senior prom with (to use the jargon) “beards” to protect what little cover they had. “There was talk,” one writes, “especially the girls. But what were they going to do about it? They couldn’t find photos of us butt-fucking.”
There is also a lesbian golfer, named Summer Lee, who confesses that “the worst thing you can be as a woman in sports is a lesbian. There’s a lot of straight fear of ‘the lavender menace.” And a loner, named Steffan Schlarb, who looked to the movie “Pretty in Pink” as a model for his prom, but instead suffered through an awkward evening that ended with him projectile-vomiting in his bedroom. “Prom was like the rest of high school,” Schlarb writes, “To me it was all an unfortunate blur. And I always knew that better things lay ahead.”
One of the more interesting essays is by Tony Scalia, Class of 1979, Austin High School in Decauter, Alabama, who went on to a career as a porn star in such films as “New England Summer” and ‘The Dirty Director.” His claim-to-fame during his high school years was as a roller disco champion who finished second place in a national championship. Like most of the essays, his deals with the conflicting feelings of realizing that he was gay in a time when it was far less public than it is today. (“I knew I was different,” he writes, “but because of where I grew up, I didn’t know about being gay. All I knew was feeling an attraction to another guy was wrong.”)
The book also highlights one of most public gay prom stories, that of Paul Guilbert and Aaron Fricke, who made headlines in 1980 when they attempted to attend a prom in their Cumberland, Rhode Island High School. Fricke went on to write about his experiences in his memoir “Reflections of a Rock Lobster,” but the essay here is by one of his classmates, Dan Stewart, who was quite vocally opposed their same-sex date during the subsequent media blitz. “When I saw myself on TV,” he writes, “I felt really cool. I felt as though I was sticking up for how the local majority felt.” The irony is that Stewart came out, entered politics, and is currently the Mayor of Plattsburgh, New York (a Republican no less who was called to Texas in 2002 to give George W. what he calls “some Gay 101.”)
The book came about when Boyer, a free-lance journalist, pitched a story to Might Magazine in 1997 about the prom experiences of some gays and lesbians; this grew into the book years later. “As the gay rights movement was making progress in the real world and in Hollywood, I was learning quite a bit more about queer history,” he writes. The result is a volume that not only reflects the personal experiences of its participants, but also a movement over a large portion of the last century. The first person recollections are a trenchant social document that uses the prom as a starting point to reflect the ever-changing roles of gays and lesbians in American culture. You kind of wish Stewart dropped a copy of to W as part of his tutorial into gay life.
It is also, by the way, a great looking book, filled with hundreds of pictures that display the changing fashions of the decades covered. Additionally in the center of the book is section called “The Mini Mag,” which features a Style Guide of prom trends from Seventeen Magazine, a chart of Prom fashion trends from decade-to-decade, and a map with descriptions of proms around the world. There’s also a glossary that defines terms that run the gamut from dance terms (such as the “fox trot” and “jitterbug”) to personalities such as Sandra Bernhard and Evelyn Champagne King. In retrospect what prom wouldn’t be complete without her 1977 hit “Shame?”
by David Boyer
Published by Soft Skull, 160 pp., $24.95. For more information visit http://www.gayprom.com