Alternative Proms Gain in Popularity
Lauren Mayer, above, attends a prom
for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youths and their
friends in June 2001 on Long Island in New York.
—File photo by Ting-Li Wang/The New York Times
When it comes to high school proms, one size may not fit all.
Seeking to provide safe havens or to accommodate different student interests, some groups are providing alternative proms for students based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.
With such gatherings apparently on the rise this spring, some educators and observers wonder what the trend shows about differing visions of America, and the tension between integration and separation among groups of all kinds.
Some towns in the Deep South have for years held separate proms for white and black high school juniors and seniors. Now, at least one Georgia community is holding a third prom—for Hispanic students.
Elsewhere this spring, evangelical Christians threw a prom for high school students in Pennsylvania. Gay and lesbian students are finding more prom settings of their own. Some Nebraska students with disabilities have gathered for an annual prom over the past few years.
"The question is whether as a community it is wise to have us work together—to have us integrate all facets of our community—or whether we accept the perception that that differences do in fact make a difference," said Raymond T. Diamond, a law professor and legal historian at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Andrea Cruz said she helped sponsor the prom this spring for Hispanic students near Lyons, Ga., after a student came to her saying she was unwelcome at the local "white" prom.
"This community is having to segregate," said Ms. Cruz, referring to the Hispanic teenagers. She is the executive director of the Southeast Georgia Community Project, an advocacy organization for Hispanics in Toombs County, about 180 miles southeast of Atlanta.
"There’s really no way around this," she said, "unless we get some school support."
Some proms are being held for teenagers who might be left out.
Dozens of high school proms have emerged in recent years for gay and lesbian high school students, said Joshua Lamont, the communications director for the New York-City based Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, which advocates on behalf of gay students and educators.
One of the first suburban proms for gay students was held on Long Island in New York. Now in its fourth year, the prom organized by the group Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth will be held in June, said David Kilmnick, the president of the Bay Shore, N.Y.-based support organization.
Mr. Kilmnick said that having all students together at the same prom is preferable, however, and that signs of acceptance are emerging.
For now, he said, the Long Island group promotes the support and nurturing of gay students in schools. As such support grows, "there won’t be a need [for a separate prom], but we’re not there yet," he said.
Religious groups also are offering students some prom alternatives.
"I’m a parent that wanted to send my child to the Christian prom and found out there wasn’t one," said Debbie Kmecik, who helped organize an alternative prom near Erie, Pa., earlier this month.
Speaking just before the event, she said more than 200 students who are home-schooled or attend public or private schools were expected for the formal dance for grades 9-12 at a church outside Erie. A local disc jockey was set to play contemporary Christian tunes to accompany a classic prom theme: a Hawaiian luau.
Ms. Kmecik said the idea of a dance specifically for Christian students had not been a source of controversy. "I have not had anyone say anything on that," said Ms. Kmecik, whose children are home-schooled.
In other places, meanwhile, proms also are being organized for students with disabilities.
Katie Freeman and Kelsie Williamson organized Omaha, Neb.’s first "Special Friends Prom" three years ago while students at Millard North High School.
"A lot of the special-needs students we grew up with do not go to the prom. Some of them do, but most of them don’t," said Ms. Freeman, now a rising senior at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo.
Her mother, Martha Freeman, said public school officials at first were wary of the event planned at her church. Martha Freeman, who is a minister and has helped with the proms, said that after the first event, educators grew more comfortable with the idea.
"It is just the most smiles in a room at one time that I ever see," she said.
The two founders of the dance, which is now organized by other students, set up an e-mail address to take requests for the free guidebook they wrote on planning a prom for students with disabilities: [email protected]
Separate and Equal?
Proms for white and black students in Ms. Cruz’s southeast Georgia community have been separate for the past 12 years, as they are in some other Southern communities. ("In Some Southern Towns, Prom Night a Black-or-White Affair," May 14, 2003.)
The Toombs County public schools serve about 2,800 students in the area that surrounds the town of Vidalia, which is famous for its sweet yellow onions.
The school system is integrated: Most of the students are white, about 20 percent are black, and about 17 percent are Hispanic.
Superintendent Kendall Brantley said he was the principal at Toombs County High School when black and white parents of juniors and seniors began planning their own spring dances outside of school, often holding separate proms at the local National Guard armory.
The school stopped holding its own prom after the separate proms began.
"It’s not that anybody’s excluded. They just want to have their own music, their own type of food," Mr. Brantley said of the separate proms. He noted that some students planned to attended all three proms this year. "I don’t think it has anything to do with race. It’s just the tradition."
Danny Bowen, the chairman of the Toombs County school board, said he’s been too busy at the Vidalia onion fields and warehouses he manages to see television and press reports about the three proms. "From what I’ve heard, we’re just being portrayed as a racist system and a racist community," he said.
"People with similar backgrounds form relationships and friendships," Mr. Bowen said, "and people with different backgrounds sometimes don’t, and I’m not sure it always has anything to do with race."
Ms. Cruz said she was expecting up to 200 students earlier this month at the Silverado music hall in Toombs County for the Hispanic prom. She had no idea that national TV cameras would be in the mix. "It has gotten way out of hand," she said. "The purpose of this was not to stir up conflict."
She called on local school leaders to do more to bring students of different backgrounds together—especially for a prom.
"That’s certainly worthy of consideration," responded Mr. Bowen, the school board chairman. The board was set to discuss the controversy at a meeting late last week.
Toombs County High School Principal Ralph Hardy, who is black, said that he would prefer a school-run prom for all students, but that it isn’t his decision to make. "I’d be glad to see it happen, but it’s not for me to decide," he said.
While some observers say they understand why students might flock to alternative proms, others question the need for them.
Barbara Cervone, the president of What Kids Can Do, a Providence, R.I.-based student-advocacy group, is not surprised by the splintering of proms.
She said alternative proms may be an outgrowth of schools’ and communities’ willingness to allow growing student diversity and differences to be expressed in other venues, such as clubs.
Ultimately, she added, the rite of passage of taking a date to the prom simply may not resonate with today’s students the same ways it did in years past.
"We related through couples, and they don’t," Ms. Cervone said. "I don’t think kids think of themselves as rejecting anything, but it’s more of a natural extension of how they socialize."
But separate events did not seem desirable to young adults who work with Youth Ventures, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit group that helps civic-minded young people ages 12 to 20 start clubs and businesses.
"If their needs were being met in the first place, then they wouldn’t feel the impetus or need for [separate proms]," said Nicholas Pelzer, a 25-year-old recent graduate of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.
Khyati Desai, a 23-year-old from Baton Rouge, La., attended a diverse high school, and remembered that the music at her senior prom catered mostly to white students’ tastes. While she valued attending an integrated event, she said the organizers could have been more considerate of everyone who attended.
She doesn’t like the idea of separate events: "They are promoting, encouraging social segregation."
Mr. Diamond, the Tulane professor, said racially separate community dances may be permitted under the law, but schools are wrong to condone them. It’s possible that by not offering an alternative, schools are accepting discrimination.
"Some community traditions are racist," Mr. Diamond said, "and to accept them is a conscious acceptance of racism, and I think that’s what’s going on."
Vol. 23, Issue 37, Pages 1, 19Published in Print: May 19, 2004, as Alternative Proms Gain in Popularity