SCHENECTADY – With coolers full of sodas and waters, music blaring through tall speakers, and balloons scattered across the gymnasium floor, the bottom level of the Schenectady YCMA seemed like the typical setup for the typical prom on Friday night. But this was an Alternative Prom, and unlike a high school prom, this one offered much more than a dance floor and some snacks.
“It was one of the first times I was able to express myself and feel safe,” said 23-year-old Finn Rich as they hung decorations. They had attended Alternative Prom several years prior and returned as a volunteer this year.
Alternative Prom, hosted annually by the Pride Center of the Capital Region, brings together LGBTQ+ youth and allies, ages 13 to 19, from across the Capital Region for a night of dancing and making friends. This year marked the 23rd prom sponsored by the Pride Center, and the first to be held since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic which effectively shut down all of the Center’s festivities for two years.
Here, the teens coul experience full acceptance and support for who they are regardless of their gender, sexuality, or expression. This type of atmosphere is often not available at ordinary high school proms, or even at home, which is what makes the Alternative Prom so crucial for the well-being of LGBTQ+ teens.
“For youth specifically, being in a high school or middle school where it’s restrictive and they’re not always able to present themselves the way that’s affirming for them – this space offers them that opportunity to be able to say, ‘This is who I am, and I am proud to be who I am,’” said Jen Maley-Wheeler, the director of operations and programs at the Pride Center.
“It’s really accepting, I really like it,” said Ollie Mertaugh, who was attending the event for the first time.
Asraiah Hamblin sported an all-black outfit that they proudly announced was bought entirely from a thrift store. It was also Hamblin’s first time at Alt-Prom.
“You don’t have to feel ashamed because everyone supports everyone here,” Hamblin said.
The night’s theme was the zodiac, and the young people were encouraged to dress up how they wanted, whether that meant as a representation of one of the zodiac signs or in any other way they felt expressed them best. One young person wore a long, emerald green gown with a golden band wrapped around their upper arm, and another strutted from room to room in a black leather jacket, sunglasses, and boots.
“I was trying to find something where everyone could feel included,” said Tora Stringfield, the office manager of the Pride Center, who came up with the idea of the prom’s theme. “It’s easier for kids to get to know each other on a neutral ground and a zodiac sign is something that anyone can talk about regardless of your background.”
Along with fashion, friendships, and star signs, the prom offered a variety of other activity options. Some teens gathered in a circle in the fortune-telling and gaming room to play Mafia, a complex social deduction party game. Down the hall was the chill-out zone, where those who may have felt overwhelmed by the loud noise and crowd of other teenagers could color, paint, or simply sit in quiet to calm down.
Three organizations also joined the event.
Albany Medical Center’s Specialized Care Center for Adolescents & Young Adults offered a small true-or-false game, in which the teens could spin a wheel that displayed slices of factual tidbits relating to HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases, and guess whether or not the fact was true. Regardless of their answer, each participant got a prize, which included keychains with condoms in them, lollipops, and hand sanitizer. P
lanned Parenthood of Greater New York and CARES of NY, Inc., an organization dedicated to ending homelessness, also had tables.
At the end of the night, the Alternative Prom was much more than a simple dance event. Pride flags of all kinds lined the walls of the gymnasium. A poster was hung in the snack room where the teens could anonymously write compliments and supportive words to the others. Friend groups approached those who came alone and asked if they wanted to dance with them. It was a safe space.
“This,” Stringfield said, “is a place for them to be themselves and shine bright like a star.”
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I’m so confused right now. Never in U.S. history has the LGBTQ community been more “accepted” by society as is today. Yet many, for example these teenagers, are now consciously CHOOSING to exclude themselves from their “straight” peers?? Well I guess that throws the (+) right out the window now doesn’t it? + everyone, except heterosexuals right? Give me a break. These kids are being encouraged to ostracize and pitty themselves, when society is trying to embrace them. It’s ridiculous. They have no “fear” while expressing themselves in school, and/or in public. We ALL see it on a daily basis. You have transgender bathrooms in school now!! Try being anything but straight in 1980s-90s, my generartion. That was hell. Ya’ll want attention, become a superstar. Ya’ll want to be “included,” quit pushing the envelope, and stand tall and proud. The world owes you nothing ….
yyyup, a real head scratcher …
I’m not here to bicker with unreasonable and/or illogical people. I’m simply speaking from experience. Take it, leave it or twirl it around into something it’s not. Hear me out before you cast your stones … truly.
Never in U.S. history has the LGBTQ community been more “accepted” by society as is today. This movement has come such a long way the past 20 years and I couldn’t be more grateful. Seriously. Try being anything but straight growing up in the 80s or 90s, my generartion. That was hell. Yet many, For example these teenagers, are now consciously CHOOSING to exclude themselves from their “straight” peers?? Like many people, I am just trying to make sense of all this hype. I mean certainly it can’t be the interactions with fellow LGBTQ peers making them feel so unsafe and unable to express themselves, right? It’s must be their straight peers causing such grief.
I guess that throws the (+) right out the window now doesn’t it? + everyone, except heterosexuals right? Give me a break. Practice what you preach.
Funny, these kids have no “fear” while expressing themselves in school, and/or in public. Yes, we have ALL witnessed this shift, which I perceived as a WONDERFUL thing, originally, until now. I can not fathom why any of these kids are being encouraged to ostracize, exclude and pitty themselves when faced with such adversity, when in reality, society is finally trying to embrace them. It’s ridiculous. Ya’ll want attention, become a superstar. Ya’ll want to be “accepted,” quit pushing the envelope, stand tall and proud. The world owes you nothing …. acceptance and peace derives from within you. COEXIST <3
jJust YUCK, like the Pride Festival. NOT FOR CHILDREN …..my opinion.