What It's Really Like Going To Prom As An LGBTQ+ Student

Meet two teens — who don't live in New York or L.A. — who said no to the dress.

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Trigger warning: During the McCarthy era of the 1950s, prom — yes, the night of spiked punch and making out under the bleachers — served as a part of curriculum meant to “keep youth sexually straight." The ritual was an agent for the then-nationwide campaign to fight homosexuality by projecting an excruciatingly heteronormative dress code and gendered roles (see: “prom king” and “prom queen”) onto high schoolers. And though that was over 75 years ago, looking at the state of prom culture today, it’s too easy to see that little has changed.
Prom has served as a high school milestone since the late 19th century. But over time, the coming-of-age bash has evolved into an exclusive, straights-only type of social outing. Not to mention a pricey one. No wonder it’s more or less stayed within the confines of America.
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While the internet has tended to favour those more viral and harmless moments, like duct tape as a textile (which has spurred its own scholarship fund) or recreating Beyoncé’s latest nude dress, the reality of prom is that it highlights just how far educational institutions must go in the advancement and protection of LGBTQ+ students. Nowadays, bogus dress code violations and students who are deemed too gay to even go rule headlines.
Today’s youth is getting queerer by the generation, which makes prom even less inviting to those who don't fit the social norm. More teens are instead choosing to enhance those emotional and physical attributes that make them so unique rather than pick from the only options ever given — a dress or a tuxedo — usually by a 21-page dossier. As organisations like the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network continue their 25 years of educating schools and staff on what a safe, inclusive environment for all students looks like, realistic representations of LGBTQ+ youth at prom is needed now more than ever. It's why we worked with GLSEN to tell the stories of Ose Arheghan and James van Kuilenburg.
For James, who identifies as transgender and gender nonconforming, his prom experience included a tux, but also a safety plan — a group of his heterosexual friends who offered to protect him and his date, Frank, throughout the night. For Ose, who is nonbinary and queer, their protection from awkward stares and potential confrontation wasn't aided by school security guards, who once told them to "keep their politics out of the bathroom."
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Below, we joined Ose and James as they got ready for prom, and spoke to them about navigating high school, how they use clothing to express themselves, and how prom wasn't so much a night to remember as it was a reminder that it really does get better — all because they said no to the dress, and instead chose to wear exactly what they wanted.
Photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
What's your daily high school experience like? And how does fashion play a role in how others perceive you?
OA: "For me, school is incredibly stressful. I go to an International Baccalaureate school, which means the academic rigour is incredibly tough. Think: all education, all the time. There isn’t room for anything else, so navigating a queer identity on top of that is...interesting. I’m in this place where everyone is so focused on college and testing that when things come up, like teachers not using the right pronouns or not saying the most accepting things about LGBTQ+ students, it’s like, Oh, well we have other things to worry about; we’re here for education.
"It’s always been difficult in my history class because we do a lot of debates; I’ve had teachers say, 'Okay, well — this is a binary debate, so you’re just going to have to deal with it' or 'Sure, you use different pronouns, but we don’t view gender neutral pronouns as being grammatically correct in the English department.' People don’t realise that not being aware of the LGBTQ+ community can negatively impact LGBTQ+ students trying to get their education."
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How would you describe your personal style?
OA: "It’s weird. I only wear four colours: white, black, red, and grey. That’s it. If you walked into my room, you’d be confused. I like to be put together and look nice, but I’m the type of person that likes to put in minimal effort (but still look like I spent an hour on my outfit)."
Photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
Does your school have a dress code then?
OA: "We have a dress code, but it’s not strictly enforced. For us, the only thing that really comes into question is, if it gets hot, making sure that girls don’t wear short-shorts or people having undergarments showing. Overall, it could be a lot worse."
You’ve worn a dress to prom before.
OA: "Prom last year was really interesting. There was a good month where I didn’t want to go. My boyfriend asked me to prom and my response was, 'Um, can I get back to you?' which was really shitty and I acknowledge that. But I had this big crisis about what I was going to wear, because I like gender fluidity and being able to change my style. But when it comes to formalwear, I really appreciate strong, bold, masculine looks. I had this internal struggle where it was like, if I went to prom in a suit, would I be taking away from my boyfriend’s masculinity?
"It ended up not being an issue and we’ve talked about it since. I looked great, but I wasn’t as comfortable as I would have been in, say, pants. But it was a look! To an extent, it still was my look, but just for that night."
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And your look this year?
OA: "When it comes to self-expression, my school tries to make sure that students are free to express themselves — and that showed at prom. I got to wear the suit that I wanted to wear, and it wasn’t your typical suit. I know some schools are weird about that (like, you have to wear a standard suit or a dress), but I had on leather pants. Some guys had on wigs and dresses and pantsuits. People still gave us looks — and some of the looks came from school administrators — but there was a queerness there.
"My school is one of those places where we have a lot of practices but we don’t have policies. So, your experience as a queer individual is based on who you interact with. There are some LGBTQ+ kids who have had phenomenal experiences because they’ve dealt with really accepting teachers, faculty, and security staff. But some other students have had worse experiences — like, genuinely awful moments — because some people just aren’t accepting and they make that known."
Photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
Does the fact that you’re a person of colour affect any of what you’ve spoken about?
OA: "I think school would be a lot easier for me if I wasn’t queer, trans, and a person of colour. I think that because of my identities, I was always in this protective mode where I was ready for people to say offensive things. People have said offensive things. When it comes to daily life and school, I’ve received comments that included misgendering me or my fashion.
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"At prom, there was a lot of that friction because I was with a bunch of teachers and students that I feel genuinely uncomfortable around. I’m respected as a student but I’m not respected as a student of colour or a queer or trans student. It’s important for you to use the right pronouns, it’s important for you to appreciate my style as something that’s non-binary and gender-fluid. Not just Oh, you look cool because you wear pants or You’re cool because you wear colours I’m not comfortable wearing. When your compliments are given to me as a cis woman, when you’re expecting me to appreciate the things you appreciate for me as a cis person, it’s not a real compliment because you’re not appreciating me as the person I am."
What would you say to someone, then, who thinks fashion is just clothing?
OA: "Fashion is so much more than that. It’s a way of self-expression. For some people, clothes are just things you put on your body — and that’s more than fine and I respect that — but for me, fashion is an armor. It’s the way that I choose to express the person that I am and the person that I want to be perceived as."
And beyond fashion?
OA: "The thing that is most important to me is education on the queer community and how that plays out in schools. School should always be a place for queer students to be themselves and it should be a place that’s open and affirming to anyone who walks through their doors, especially queer and trans youth. Staff can’t make open and affirming policies if they don’t first educate themselves on what that means to be queer and what that means for high school youth.
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"The issues that I’ve faced in school, while they’ve been traumatic, are not because teachers don’t want me to be successful or that they have malice. I don’t even think it’s because they hold bigotry. I think it’s because there isn’t a push to educate adults on queerness. I think that bleeds over to the way that students who are different are treated by other students. If they don’t see the adults in their lives — whether it be their teachers or parents, making an effort to educate themselves on what it means to be queer — then the students don’t think it’s important either."
Photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
Talk to me about your prom experience.
James van Kuilenburg: "My family came to the United States in 2002 when I was really young. I say that because prom is a very American experience, and my parents aren’t very familiar with it — we’re from the Netherlands and England — so all I’ve really known about prom was from movies or television. When I came out as transgender when I was 12, I struggled to balance my trans identity with all of this picture-perfect stuff that I’d seen on-screen.
"I went to prom last year, and I dressed really masculinely (I matched tuxes with my then-boyfriend); it was fun, but I felt really inauthentic and uncomfortable the entire time. I don’t get along with a lot of the people in my school because I’m trans and because of the activism I do, so I felt like I was trying to emulate something I’m not; that I was trying to look like the people who’ve bullied me my entire high school experience. I was like, Why am I doing that? Why am I dressing up in a way that doesn’t really respect who I am?
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"This year, I went with my best friend. We’re not in a relationship, but we’re really close, so we call each other “queerplatonic partners.” It’s this super level of friendship where you’re really, really close and you love each other a lot, like family. I don’t know a lot of people who have queerplatonic partners, but I think it’s definitely something that our generation is figuring out. With queer people, there’s a different sense of friendship; it’s so much deeper and meaningful because we all have shared experiences or trauma, and we can connect on that level.
"So, I talked to him and said, 'We should do something wild for my prom!' He’s pretty feminine, and I’ve been trying to explore [my own] feminine expression. For a lot of trans guys like me, as soon as we come out as transgender, we feel like we have to reject all femininity violently. A lot of my trans male friends are really, really adamant about not wearing pink or things that make them look ‘girly’, which is a really toxic thing to fall into. But that’s definitely how the first two years of my transition were. I was like, I’m super masculine! I’m gonna look exactly like a cisgender guy! But it just wasn’t healthy (or fun).
"I wore a tuxedo jacket and skinny pants — I still like tuxes and stuff, but I spiced it up a little bit — and we wore matching makeup. I’ve never worn makeup, even before I came out as trans, so that was a really unique experience. (We wore Fenty!) My friend wore high heels and he looked
really good in them.
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How does your school handle prom dress codes?
JVK: "In a setting like prom, it’s so rigid. I don’t know if it’s just my school, but you’re basically shunned — especially if you’re a guy — if you don’t wear a specific thing. I’m not exaggerating: Every guy wore the exact same tuxedo at my school’s prom. There were different colours here and there, but it was basically just black and red (our school colours, I guess). There’s this weird expectation of how people should look when coming to a school event.
"In a more general sense, I've had so many negative experiences with gender expression — from my teachers and peers — and this was kind of the final hurrah. I didn’t care if I pissed anyone off because they couldn’t do anything about it. [My date and I] were worried, though, that we were going to be attacked because we were dressed so femininely; my mum was worried, too. I get a lot of comments and crap from people, even when I dress masculinely, so I was like, God, what’s going to happen if I dress so femme? People might not take me as seriously.
"But we developed a safety plan. We talked to all of our straight friends and made them guard us throughout the night so we were never alone."
What did that plan look like? And why did you choose those friends to protect you?
JVK: "The night before prom, it kind of all hit me at once. I called Frank and was like, 'Listen. We need to talk about what we’re gonna do if someone tries to attack us because it’s a possibility.' He agreed. I asked my mom for advice — we have a really good relationship — and she told me to keep my phone on me (and charged) at all times. Then I took my friends to dinner and was like, ‘Hey, not to freak you guys out but you’re the most straight cisgender-looking people we’re friends with, so if it comes down to it, please be prepared to stick up for us or divert attention from us.’ I was kind of afraid of how they’d react, but they were really receptive.
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"They were like, 'Yeah, we’re really worried about you. But this is your night. So, whatever we can do, let us know.' It was incredibly affirming that they felt like that. Throughout the night, Frank and I were never alone. There were a few times we noticed people looking at us and talking about us, so we’d check in with each other and move to the other side of the room if we didn’t feel safe. Thankfully, nothing happened.
"All of my friends thought it was cool and empowering, but all of these random people were coming up to me and saying, 'I saw your outfit. What was that about?' I was like, 'Does it need to be about anything?' Maybe it triggered people’s insecurities. It was probably difficult for some folks in that room to see us being so open and authentic when they’re not. A lot of people in my school are so trapped by gender roles and expectations."
What types of parameters did your school’s prom dress code have that allowed or prohibited you to/from taking your gender expression to the fullest?
JVK: "It’s definitely been a journey since I’ve come out figuring out how femme I’m comfortable being. That’s where I definitely lean into the tux because I feel like it’s a really powerful look. I identify as gender nonconforming, too, so it was important for me to wear a tux because I feel comfortable in that. A few years ago, I never would have gone outside of that.
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"I think people feel uncomfortable when you challenge what ideas they have. I went to prom last year following an expectation that I’d been given, so I was like, Let me fit into this role that people want. But even then, they didn’t take me seriously. This year, when I was authentic and went all-out, people were confused and didn’t understand. I think, in general, that’s something for queer students: There’s just no room for us. No matter how we act, people don’t expect us to be there. The only reality that people were willing to consider was that I just wouldn’t go to prom. But that’s not fair. It’s my prom, too, and I want to go."
Photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
How does fashion play a role in your life and how did prom change your perception of it?
JVK: "It’s complicated. Fashion can be a tool for queer folks to feel empowered but it can also be used to take power away from us. I always felt really stressed about clothes and what to wear when I was younger because, at that point, I hadn’t figured out my gender and a lot of people had an expectation of me and what I should wear. My parents always tell me that I went through this phase of wearing baggy clothing. I wore sweatpants and hooded sweatshirts every day, for like, years, because I was uncomfortable; I didn’t want anyone to be able to see what my body looked like. In that way, I feel like fashion almost protected me.
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"After I came out as transgender and queer, I fell into really masculine clothing. I felt like I could use fashion to almost prove to people that I was really a guy. Obviously, I figured out that that wasn’t true because I didn’t feel comfortable only wearing strictly masculine clothing. Then I realized how much fun fashion could be and how I could explore the process of my coming out as a trans person."
What else should people know about this experience?
JVK: "Something I wish was a little more well-known is that not all queer people express themselves in the same way, even if we share the same identity; there are so many different and beautiful subcultures in queer identity that people may belong to. All youth will go through phases of gender expression, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. I don’t think that me every wearing dresses when I was younger is invalid. I’m rooting for that little James. I’m proud of him that he wore those dresses — and he enjoyed them at that point — but then there was a point where he stopped enjoying it.
"Especially for trans people, there seems to be this very rigid expectation of That was the day I stopped wearing dresses and now I’m a man. People ask me when I stopped wearing women’s clothing. Gender expression is not the definition of your gender.
"I affirm transgender people who are gender nonconforming because I feel like that's not a reality that’s spoken about enough. I think it leads to a lot of weird infighting and competition within the trans community, that people are always trying to out-masculine or out-feminine each other. It’s seen as If you’re more masculine/feminine, then you’re more trans, but that’s such bullshit. It’s repressive. We are all acknowledging that trans-identity exists and we believe it’s valid, but then we’re like, But now, you have to follow strict gender norms. That’s not fair. I hope trans people can move away from that."
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