by Fionna Farrell
art by Dasha Klein
[originally published June 2021]
If you are one of the lucky ones, the word “prom” should bring back an assortment of fond memories — or relatively fond, at least. This is, of course, considering you took the liberty of attending the event; I don’t blame you if you didn’t. Prom is not always as intrinsically exciting as teen movies on cable make it out to be, whether because of the venue, DJ, or something more sinister. Indeed, its oft-exclusionary nature tends to be a major factor in many people’s distaste for prom; we can skirt around poorly-placed tables but not heternormative excess!
Thus, “Pride Prom” comes as a natural solution to this. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Oberlin was in on it. On June 26th, the ‘Sco hosted a Pride Prom to end all Pride Proms (don’t roll your eyes at me - we are in Ohio, and I am feeling very generous). Having attended the event, I can certainly say that, if ever forced at gunpoint to name the prom experience that I found most favorable, well, I know what I’d be picking.
The “prom,” although confined to Wilder’s basement and restricted to 100 participants at a time, was everything that every run-of-the-mill high school prom is not. First of all, it was not hellbent on promoting phony romantic overtures between pimple-faced 17-year olds. Indeed, no one seemed particularly focused on losing their virginity that night. Instead, it was a celebration of identity and selfhood. It was also a way to let loose. There were no restrictions on music or fashion. There were no uptight moms trying to move the sun to get a photo of you, or uncertain boyfriends sweating through their shirts because they couldn’t get the corsage on right.
Instead, there was shared empowerment and unity as to why we were all there. To express ourselves freely and without hesitation. To share time with our closest friends who accept us truly and wholly. And, perhaps most importantly, to acknowledge and celebrate those not as privileged as us: those who do not get to express themselves freely, those whose sheer existence is rebuked by the outside world. We would indeed not be here were it not for trans people of color and other marginalized groups.
We are all passionate about this. We all know that silly pride prom spans far beyond our mere selves, and that it’s our duty to consider this. Outside of our own little bubble, the world gets a bit harsher. And yet, at the end of the night, what is there left to do? Go back to our dorms, shed our mercilessly tested attire, and go to sleep grinning and unshowered? That sure doesn’t sound bad — after all, there are far worse ways to end the night. But it’s probably exactly what we did on our high school prom nights (perhaps, at a much earlier or later hour, depending on how strict our parents were).
I’m certainly not saying that pride prom is pointless; in fact, far from it. But I think there is a certain intrinsic aspect of it that seems particularly finite and self-directed. Even considering the callback to the greater world. For the next morning, we are back into our practiced routines. We put on our favorite masks, each fitted with various degrees of subtlety. In a couple of decades, our kids will be stumbling cluelessly into their “normal proms.” If they go to a particularly progressive high school or Oberlin College, they might get to see a pride prom or two. But this isn’t the reality for everyone. Not even close.
Pride month itself is only, well, a month. Pride prom seems to function as an unfortunate reminder of this. In June, stores upsell the rainbow; in July, it is back to plaid and stripes. At pride prom you get to be yourself, but the next day - who knows what the world will bring you. In this regard, I’m not just speaking to Oberlin’s pride prom; I’m speaking to the pride proms everywhere. The experience of understanding, expressing, and most importantly, celebrating ourselves becomes one of reduction: reduced to thirty days, reduced to three hours. How is one to proceed? We do not simply gain new identities come July or Sunday morning.
And for many, Pride is not just about the acceptance of ourselves, but being able to share this acceptance with both the world and those closest to us. How are we supposed to do this when, in some places, hanging a Pride flag in the street can still prove to be a dangerous choice? When the solace of a Pride parade feels like the only real safe space in the world? It is indeed difficult to open ourselves up to our families wholly and honestly when so much remains uncertain -- when Pride is so often confined to a certain temporality, or a certain stretch of blocks where one can walk - or even exist - without worry.
Of course, these problems are not solved overnight. These systemic issues that perpetuate so much exclusion - not unlike high school prom - remain deeply entrenched in our culture. And, sadly, as much as Pride month serves as a solution to that, it is also somewhat a reminder of it. Not in its history, not in the celebration of identity at which it aims - but the way that it’s become practiced and performed within our culture, as if perpetually aware of its own finitude. Pride prom might have been great, but it’s still nothing more than an appendage of all those stuffy heteronormative proms. Why do they have to be mutually exclusive from one another?
I’m not saying that every month should be pride month, or that we should get rid of pride proms. The latter would be awful - the former, great, but sadly, unachievable. Rather every month should be one that we feel comfortable expressing ourselves with pride. And every prom should have a spirit of pride prom imbued within (good luck on that one, Central High School). This way, when Pride month and the pride proms do roll around, they will be truly special -- one can celebrate themselves even harder when it’s not just for a few moments.