A rising Freedom High School senior has big plans for Loudoun’s alternative, accepting, charitable prom.
Pride Prom began in 2015 at Loudoun Valley High School with Lily Hamilton. It is a sort of alternative prom, welcoming to all students, designated as a safe space for LGBT students, which donates the proceeds to charity.
Hamilton, now studying social work and Spanish at Virginia Commonwealth University, said at that time she noticed “a very large dearth of spaces for LGBTQ+ students.”
“There would be isolated pockets of community within specific high schools in the form of gay-straight alliances,” Hamilton said. “The GSA [club] at Valley was one I had resuscitated after it was abandoned by its previous creators.”
At that time—and even today—there were several schools with no GSA clubs and apparently little interest in that sort of outreach. But Hamilton knew there were as many LGBT students in Loudoun as anywhere else, and that they needed a place to feel part of the schools.
“I thought it would be very beneficial for students all over Loudoun to see that it wasn’t just a handful of students at the individual school, but that there were kids all across the county that could identify with them and their experiences,” Hamilton said.
And the regular proms, although not meant to be, could end up being uncomfortable places for LGBT students.
“Spaces like that that aren’t specifically built around the ends of LGBT youth and can be hostile to their presence,” Hamilton said. “I’ve heard stories of individuals, especially trans individuals, attending dances and feeling uncomfortable or even being openly mocked.”
Over the months between her idea in January and the actual prom at the end of the school year, Hamilton worked with faculty and other GSAs to put together the first Pride Prom at Loudoun County High School. More than 100 people showed up.
“I was overjoyed that it wasn’t just me dancing in a room by myself,” Hamilton said.
And it wasn’t.
“I noticed a lot of younger ninth through tenth graders who were there, people who were at all ends of the spectrum and all points in between, which was very inspiring to me,” Hamilton said. “And I do remember after the event we all went to IHOP, as people do after proms or dances. A couple people who had just attended, and weren’t in my immediate friend group, came up to me and were really excited about the night, and were gushing to me about how they don’t get the opportunity to be themselves like that in many other spaces, which in my mind affirmed how worth it the event was.
“It really touched me in a lot of ways. We got a lot of people who really needed that kind of space.”
The proceeds from that prom went to the Wanda Alston Foundation, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that provides shelter and support services for homeless and at-risk LGBT young people between the ages of 16 and 24.
“It’s open to everybody,” Hamilton said. “Allies are of course welcome always. The big part about these kinds of events is that you want to make sure that these communities, for which the purpose of the event was for, should be centered on as much as possible since they’re the ones with the greatest needs.”
The New Generation
Now, Freedom High School student Blair Smith wants to expand Pride Prom across the county.
His work began with trying to expand gay-straight alliance clubs in the school system. He is working on starting a GSA at Freedom that he’s calling Milk Club, after gay rights activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in California. In his 11 months on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Milk was responsible for passing a gay rights ordinance for the city, and was assassinated, alongside Mayor George Moscone, by a resigned supervisor.
In this, Smith is joined by Briar Woods student Allison Ball and others around the county, especially students at the Loudoun Academies of Science. A survey by the Academies of Science Umbrella Club found that students felt AOS was much more accepting of LGBT students than the rest of Loudoun County Public Schools, and that students felt AOS staff members had done more to prevent discrimination and bullying.
“The first question that people always seem to have is, ‘can straight people come? Why would I go if I’m straight?’” Ball said. “The point isn’t just to create an LGBT [event.] It’s also just to create an environment where they feel welcomed, and I think some of the students are initially turned off, because they think it’s just going to be a bunch of LGBT students.”
She said although LGBT students probably make up the majority of attendees, there are exceptions, and “you don’t always know.”
“It’s not like we’re wearing nametags saying what we identify as,” Ball said.
Smith wants to get a GSA going and involved in Pride Prom at every school. That’s important, because by school rules, for students to attend the event, there must be a staff attendant from each school represented.
“I definitely want to do community service to help people who need help, and it’s not specifically just for the LGBT community,” Smith said. “I also want to make sure that we’re establishing relationships outside our group, so that people can be comfortable.”
“The reason I keep coming back to Pride Prom and getting so involved with it is just because high school is one of the most difficult parts of a student’s life,” Ball said. “And especially when you don’t feel like you fit in, it gets a lot harder, and I think everyone deserves a place where people can feel like themselves. We’re just trying to provide a space where students can finally feel like they can be themselves.”
Like previous years, Smith said everyone would be welcome at next year’s Pride Prom.
“The important point that I wanted to make is that we’re not trying to frame this as a political event,” Smith said. “We’re not trying to make a political statement with this. It’s supposed to just be a social thing. It’s supposed to be about giving back, it’s about creating a positive environment, and it’s about advertising.”
Smith plans to make Pride Prom his senior capstone project, which seniors take three weeks to work on at the end of the school year, although he will work on Pride Prom throughout the year.
“The real work starts when the school year starts,” Smith said.
To sponsor Pride Prom, contact the Freedom High School Milk Club at firstname.lastname@example.org.