Queer Prom: A Second-Chance Dance

The rainbow streamers were strung, the pop ballads were queued, and early arrivals were posing for Polaroid photos.

Queer Prom was off to a good start, but Mary Aquiningoc ’19 was stressed.

“It was a bit of a mess,” Mary says. “I showed up late because I had to make the playlist and all this other stuff. Our treasurer quit an hour before setup. We had to recruit all these random people to help unlock things and get our decorations out. I was just running everywhere.” But then Mary, the inimitable Queer Alliance co-president, got things under control, and people started migrating to the dance floor.

Julia Lin ’18 and Mary Aquiningoc ’19 at Queer Prom
Julia Lin ’18 and Mary Aquiningoc ’19 at Queer Prom.

Queer Prom—“Quom”—is a new tradition on campus, now in its second year. Since many LGBTQ students experience some anxiety about their high school proms, Queer Alliance gives them a second chance—without the same high-stakes expectations. On a Saturday evening in March, around 30 students arrived alone or with friends. Some were dressed up, and some weren’t. No one had to worry about pinning a corsage. “It was low-key,” Mary says. “It was all about ‘Let’s go have a good time,’ instead of all the stress that surrounds prom in adolescence. That was nice.”

Mary, who identifies as genderqueer/nonbinary and prefers they/them pronouns, went to “a pretty liberal high school” in San Diego. Even so, at prom, “it was still pretty unheard of to have a same-gender date,” Mary says. “Plus, I think a lot of people don’t figure out their identity until later. For some people that I talked to, Quom was a nice way of exploring that.” 

Queer culture on the Puget Sound campus is ever-evolving, and some students new to the scene approach it tentatively. But for Mary, who was raised by same-gender parents, it all feels familiar. “I like to tell people I grew up in a lesbian commune,” Mary says. “All these women were in different places in their lives. Some of them were married to men and realized way down the road what was going on, or they knew early on but faced a lot of hardship to get to a comfortable place. I think getting to see all of that peripherally, and to grow up with it all being normal, was a pretty big gift.” 

But Mary had to be careful when talking to outsiders, so they can still relate to others who grew up in less accepting environments. “I was definitely a loudmouthed kid,” Mary says. “I learned about internalized homophobia through how you have to navigate people’s perceptions of your family.”

Most of Mary’s family is Chamoru—the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands—a culture in which Mary says “extended family is not that different from nuclear family,” which meant navigating another layer of cultural norms. Luckily, Mary says, their parents did most of that work. “It was a really hard time for my mom, trying to get over that hurdle of talking about it with my grandma and having the language to describe everything.”

I think there is progress, but that doesn't mean that we're there or anything. I don't think there is a there."

– Mary Aquiningoc ’19

It’s true that millennials have benefited from so many LGBTQ warriors who cut a path ahead for them. The country has come explorations a long way since the Stonewall riots and the height of the AIDS epidemic, and this generation is more comfortable with fluid concepts of sexuality and gender identity. But there’s still real inequality to contend with. 

“I think it’s really naïve to say we’re always moving forward when it comes to queer politics, because as policy adapts, it still stays within the framework of what is traditionally acceptable,” Mary says. For instance, the heteronormative nature of gay marriage makes it easier for society to accept marriage equality than gender-neutral bathrooms or civil protections for trans people.

Even gay pride events have been mainstreamed and corporatized. “Pride has become less of a space where people can radically be themselves and more like a place where you conform to what people expect gay people to be—it’s a performative way of being queer for some people,” Mary says. “Then, you still have issues like trans-misogyny, violence, and the fact that queer people of color don’t have as much of a voice [in the community]. I think there is progress, but that doesn’t mean that we’re there or anything. I don’t think there is a there.”

Meanwhile, the Queer Alliance leaders created Quom in the image of that most mainstream coming-of-age construct: high school prom. They tried to keep it a little bit radical, a little bit underground, almost making fun of prom while also living out a high school fantasy. Here, same-gender dates are the norm. Here, there’s no need to declare your identity—just exploring it in a safe (or at least safer) space, dancing and posing for photos in whatever clothes you were feeling that night, is enough.


By Stacey Cook
Published July 31, 2018
Photos by Anneli Fogt