At the first Queer Prom ever to be held in the Fox River Valley, teenagers milled around in little groups, looking positively ordinary apart from their attire: sequins, bright rainbow colors and buttons announcing pronouns.
They called out choruses of songs by Kesha and Walk the Moon, formed long lines at a tarot card reader and a selfie station, and responded with audible delight when organizers announced that the Atlas Chicken Shack in neighboring Geneva had catered chicken fingers.
“Most of the kids pass as straight when they’re not here,” said an 18-year-old Geneva High School student who asked that his name not be used because he has not come out to his parents. “They can be open about who they are, especially since this is a Queer Prom. They can enunciate the fact that they’re queer, whereas at school you don’t dress up, you don’t act in a certain way, you just live your life.”
On a recent Friday night, about 100 teens had come together in St. Charles to celebrate who they are, unaware that organizers of the sold-out event had panicked when the Kane County Chronicle listed the address and potentially made the event a target of protesters. No protesters showed up, but the teens and some of their parents did, all eager for acceptance and connection in a town at a crossroads.
Among the prom chaperones was parent Gary van Breda, a South African of multiracial heritage who emigrated in 1994 with his white Zimbabwean wife. Van Breda, who said his high school-aged daughter is “beginning to understand who she is,” believed the prom would never have happened seven years ago when the family moved to the area and described competing ideologies stoked by the pandemic.
First, parents voiced opposition to school mask mandates during the COVID pandemic (Illinois was one of several states where parents filed class action suits against emergency orders requiring masking). Now, van Breda said, some want to crack down on how sexuality is taught in area schools.
“It starts off as, ‘We have a right to be the parents of children,’ which is very true. But we all have an obligation in society to keep people safe,” he said. “Then it morphs into things like race and being fearful of acknowledging people’s contributions to racism. And then it morphs further into ‘indoctrination’ of LGBTQ issues.”
Inside the event, which was sponsored by the Fox Valley Pride organization and held at Mixology Salon Spa, conversations ranged from bullying at school to whether the extended time in pandemic quarantine made it harder or easier to find acceptance as LGBTQ youth. But attendees also described what they viewed as progress in their town, notably a campaign by Geneva High School’s gay-straight alliance to petition local businesses to advertise gender-neutral bathrooms. It turned out many businesses already had them. And the openly gay owner of the spa, Phoebe Falese, said she happily provided her spa as a safe space for the prom.
Adam Walker, a sophomore at Kaneland High School, said he has never personally faced any backlash at school about his gender and sexuality, though some of his friends have.
“Sometimes they get so upset, they don’t want to talk about it,” he said.
However, the bullying typically happened among freshmen. Walker came out in 7th grade, and in high school, more and more people did too, he said. Peers told him they came out because he did it so early, which Walker did because his parents supported him.
Many of his classmates do not know he is transgender.
“They are confused a lot, because I dress all over the spectrum sometimes, even though my identity is 100% male,” he said. “I’m stealth, but not on purpose. So I don’t get targeted often. If someone asks, I’m not afraid to tell them, because I’m comfortable with who I am.”
Al Meier, 18, who uses they/them and she/her pronouns, began questioning their sexuality when the pandemic began. They described a number of online searches and taking an “Am I bisexual?” internet quiz. (“If you take that, you’re basically coming out,” Meier joked.)
Lockdown brought new connections, with Meier video chatting old friends from childhood and finding it easier to have conversations virtually than in person.
“It was a lot of self-discovery, because I’m at home, and I don’t have to worry about outside people telling me who I am or what I’m supposed to be,” they said. “I sort of got my own time to think, ‘OK, this is who I want to be.’ ”
Meier’s date to the prom was an exchange student from northern Pakistan who fell in with the same friend group.
“I think that I’m straight, but you never know,” the student said. “When I came to the United States, I saw this culture of people being so sure about their personalities and their sexualities. They know themselves. It’s a beautiful thing. That’s what inspires me.”
She would like to come back here for college.
“Compared to my country, the people here are very open-minded,” she said. “That’s what I love about America.”
Nathan Sowinski, 17, attended the prom with a date he met in their marching band’s drumline freshman year. The pair plan to go to Geneva High School’s prom together — but were looking forward to the queer one a lot more.
Sowinski came out at 13, when he was passing as female and had a crush on Demi Lovato. As with Walker, the COVID-19 lockdowns were a time of self-discovery.
“On Christmas Eve 2020, I looked in a mirror. My hair had been tucked back in an interesting way, and I thought, ‘Wow, I kind of look like a dude right now.’ And it just kind of hit me,” he said. “We were at my grandma’s house, and on the way back in the car, I started thinking of all the instances when, as a child, I had kind of been envious of guys.”
He had been mostly friends with boys in elementary and middle school and felt like he fit in with them better.
“Obviously that doesn’t determine gender, but it just felt like when I started experimenting with pronouns and a different name, it just kind of felt like I was becoming more myself,” he said. “I spent maybe two years convincing myself, ‘I am very confident in my femininity,’ and that was something that I thought I was sure of. And then when it just hit me, it felt like a switch flipped.”
“I feel like if I haven’t been thinking about this since I was a child, is it real? But then I remember how I feel when I do present male, and it just feels correct.”
The night went smoothly, with awkward teenage dancing and raffled-off gift cards for Chipotle, Starbucks and Dairy Queen.
Meier wore a suit jacket and pants to the Queer Prom but predicted wearing an outfit that “could be a dress” to Geneva High School’s prom.
“Not because I’m scared of expressing who I am, but because I think every teenager struggles with how other people see them,” they said. “That’s why I love a place like this, because I am completely open to be whoever I want, and nobody is going to assume anything about me.”
Teenagers still place some premium on conformity — even Gen Z teens. A teenager who wore eye shadow to the prom said he typically wears hoodies and basketball shorts to school — though his mohawk haircut stays.
At 10 p.m., a teen named Oscar from Batavia said the night was even better than he expected.
“I didn’t expect there to be this many people. But I got the email that it had sold out, and I was impressed,” he said.
He offered encouragement to people who were still figuring their sexualities out, no matter their age. He himself was still figuring his own out but labeled himself bisexual.
He said his favorite part of the prom was the “large amount of dancing.”
Did he dance with boys? Did he dance with girls?
“I just danced with everybody,” he said.
Aaron Gettinger is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Brittany Sowacke is a freelance photographer.