Queer High-School Seniors: The New Darlings of the LGBT Rights Movement?

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I was excited as the next Princeton queer when a group of students from the Princeton High School Gay-Straight Alliance invaded the LGBT Center the other week. It's no small thing that we live in a world where teenagers can feel safe and comfortable entering an LGBT Center of any kind, loudly exclaim about the DVDs in its lending library, and carry on as teenagers will as if the LGBT Center is any old after-school hangout spot. My heart went out to those kids: it hasn't been so long since I was a high-schooler who knew I was gay, but still would have thought twice before setting foot in a room covered in that many rainbows. Even though it's easier than ever for teenagers to be out, you've still got to admire the courage of those who are, and coo over how sweet they are and how much they remind you of yourself when you were little, except for the fact that you were a misfit and they're not.

I'm clearly not the only person who feels this way about LGBT teenagers. April and May are senior prom season, and the queer and even the mainstream media have been abuzz about the latest martyrs to the cause: the high-school seniors who want to bring same-gender dates to prom. Constance McMillen, the lesbian teenager from Mississippi who made national headlines when her high school forbade her to attend her prom with her girlfriend or in a tuxedo, became the darling not just of Queerty and Bilerico, but of network television as well. The entire world, it seemed, was shocked by her fellow teenagers' meanness, when they invited her to a "fake" prom while attending the "real" one in a different location. And McMillen isn't the only one: a gay senior from Georgia named Derrick Martin, on the other hand, made the news for successfully bringing a male date—the hitch this time being that his parents kicked him out.

These teenagers are the new heroes of the LGBT rights movement. Martin and McMillen have received repeated Internet-organized offers of donations to pay the costs of their proms; McMillen's martyrdom to the queer prom cause rewarded her with the Grand Marshalship of the New York City Pride Parade, an honor that she shares this year with Dan Choi, the Army lieutenant and Arabic translator who served multiple combat tours in Iraq, was subsequently discharged under Don't Ask Don't Tell, and has become an omnipresent and vocal opponent to the military policy; and Judy Shepard, the mother of murdered gay college student Matthew Shepard and herself an outspoken advocate for hate crimes legislation. It's difficult to overstate the level of honor and respect that decision pays to McMillen: this is the oldest Pride celebration in the country, after all, and the organizing committee is implying that her experience with her prom is equivalent to Choi's and Shepard's activist careers. To be honest, however, I'm a little incredulous: I respect McMillen for standing by the courage of her convictions, but prom? Really? Adorableness of queer teenagers notwithstanding (yes, I mean that in the most innocuous of all possible ways), what is it about this most quintessential of American high-school institutions that renders it on par with life-and-death situations?

I'd argue that it is the profound "quintessential" nature of prom that has so captivated LGBT and non-LGBT Americans alike with McMillen's and Martin's stories. Fighting to attend a prom with a same-gender date, and indeed being successful in the endeavor, represents the promise of LGBT teenagers being just like any other teenagers—and it represents the idea that those of us who felt like misfits in high school would, in a different generation, not be the outcasts we remember being. But I nevertheless think there's something dangerous about this kind of thinking: is it really such a good idea to buy into the heteronormativity of an institution like prom? Do we as queer and allied people really want to encourage the rituals of being "asked out," of corsages and boutonni√®res, of dinner-dates and dances? The dating game was one of the worst aspects of high school, to me, and I've been grateful to my queer community for relieving me of its constraints. I'm not sure that removing the gender restrictions from prom really queers it to its fullest extent, and while I respect the bravery of Martin and McMillen—coming out at 18, becoming a national media celebrity because of it, and getting kicked out by your parents are no small things—I think it's also worth thinking twice. What problems do we solve by reinforcing high-school paradigms even as we decry them for excluding us? I think I prefer it when I can stick to cooing over high-schoolers who are excited about the LGBT Center's DVDs.

2 Comments

I have to vehemently disagree; homophobia is not just something that has decreased over time because people became more mature as they aged, but rather because new, more accepting generations have begun to replace older, less accepting ones. How better to bring us closer to a world freer of homophobia (and even, dare I suggest it, 'post-gay') than to encourage the institutions where our next generation of children learns to be our next generation of adults (i.e. schools) be as accepting of homosexuality as it is of heterosexuality? These students unapologetically incorporated an element of their identity that their world's told them they ought to be ashamed of. They are role models; and since a good deal of the LGBT community may not directly identify with the tragic loss of Judy Shepherd, or the military experience of Lt. Choi, I see nothing wrong with adding yet another strong presence among such a terrific Hall of Fame for the young LGBT community to admire.

On a fairly separate note, I also have to take issue with many of your assertions regarding Prom.
"Is it really such a good idea to buy into the heteronormativity of an institution like prom?"
Prom is NOT a heteronormative institution-- or, at least, it doesn't have to be. As long as people continue to follow in the footsteps of these highly courageous individuals and feel free to "ask out", purchase "corsages and boutonnieres" for, and attend "dinner-dates and dances" with whomever their hearts desire, the institution will become less and less "heteronormative". While some people may not find these practices particularly comfortable (and, in fact, this feeling is not exclusive to any one sexual identity), there is not anything intrinsically wrong with them. What needs correcting (what is considered "heteronormative") is the assumption that these expressions of affection can and do only exist amongst heterosexual couples.

"What problems do we solve by reinforcing high-school paradigms even as we decry them for excluding us?"
Well, that's exactly it, isn't it? We decry them BECAUSE they exclude us. What do we solve by ELIMINATING these high school traditions? I think many are skeptical about LGBT rights (what they call, the "Gay Agenda") because they genuinely believe the real mission is just to destroy and eliminate many things about life they hold dear. So I hesitate to play directly into that fear when our solution to Prom is not to change what it means to be "taking a date", but rather to insinuate that it is the mere existence of such an institution that offends us in the first place.

Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment! I think we may have to agree to disagree on this one, because I sense that we're coming from fundamentally different places with regard to our respective approaches to queer politics. I definitely respect the need to have LGBT role models from younger generations, but I still stand by my feeling that prom is an institution which reinforces norms of the heterosexual dating game. It's a tradition that was created to enshrine heterosexuality in teenage culture, sort of as practice for the dating and eventually marriage that young Americans would be expected to engage in as adults. I believe that queer cultures and communities have a great opportunity to look for alternatives to these kinds of highly gendered institutions with very specific sets of rules and values, and it's always a little disappointing to me that removing the gender requirement on the institution seems to count as "queering" it--to me, buying into the institution is a way of yielding to that heteronormative pressure.

Of course, you're entitled to your opinion; mine isn't a proscriptive one here. These kids are brave, to be sure, but I find myself disagreeing with the politics of the implied end goal in bringing the whole LGBT community behind supporting prom as an institution. There are other LGBT youth issues I'd like to see the community emotionally invested in, too.

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