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The Gods and Goddesses of Anti-Prom

At the New York Public Library’s LGBT-friendly prom, the dress code is “come as you are.”

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A darkened room, the year's biggest pop hits playing, dressed-up teens bobbing and swaying somewhat nervously to the music. Prom is familiar to all of us, whether from experience or as a cinematic trope, but this one is a little different. To the left, a tall boy in black shorts and white kicks with a face contoured and highlighted to Drag Race-level perfection twirls beside a girl with a shaved head in a slip dress. Nearby, a cluster of girls in suits chat with a boy in a dress, while another girl in a green velvet cape and flower crown, like an earth goddess, makes her way past a boy in a wheelchair dressed as Poseidon. This isn't prom; it's Anti-Prom.

Anti-Prom has been an annual tradition since 2004, the same year a book of collected stories by David Boyer called Kings and Queens: Queers at the Prom was released — and got a group of librarians at the New York Public Library talking about their own prom memories.

Caitlyn Colman-McGaw, who manages young adult educational programming at NYPL, remembers attending several proms and having a great time. On the other end of the spectrum, organizer Ashley Kilian felt vulnerable and wrong at her prom: “My whole life, dresses made me uncomfortable. I felt like they didn't fit, and everyone was staring at me, and that they thought I looked as stupid as I felt... in retrospect, my aversion to dresses was a strong indicator of my queerness.”

Memories like these inspired the library staff to host a queer prom — an LGBTQ event for teens to party in a safe and accepting environment. I was lucky enough to be one of the few adults to join the party this year — they card at the door to make sure guests are 18 or under.

Traditionally, prom can mean a lot of things: the end of high school, a rite of passage, a reminder of loneliness. A dance. The start of adulthood. A commercial phenomenon. The climactic scene in teen movies. But however you frame it, the ritual of prom can spark a host of anxieties. At their core, these social pressures and expectations revolve around the conventions of heterosexual romance. Boys ask the girls, buy them a corsage, dance, and, for a few lucky ones, be crowned king and queen. Proms were essentially populist versions of the cotillion balls, or “coming out” parties among the society set. But what about those whose lives and loves don’t line up with these norms? “Coming out” takes on a whole other meaning for queer youth, and navigating social conventions like prom can be extra challenging.

Anti-Prom offers an escape and alternative, but it has grown past the notion of just a “gay prom” to a fun, inclusive party for anyone. Anti-Prom is the favorite event of the year for the librarians I talked to, and it’s not hard to see why. With an emphasis on acceptance, individuality, and creativity, the “come-as-you-are” attitude means that kids in fantastical costumes dance alongside boys vogueing, couples in traditional prom attire, and others in street clothes. According to Colman-McGaw, Anti-Prom is intended to complement, not necessarily replace, a school’s regular prom, but lots of the teens I talked to preferred the vibe at the library, claiming it’s cooler and more “edgy,” and a way to meet friends from outside your own school or neighborhood.

Anti-Prom lets non-conforming kids celebrate with likeminded peers outside of the prying eyes of teachers or bullies. A freshman I spoke with loves Anti-Prom because “nobody’s judging you. We’re all nerds here, no one is going to judge.” I’m not sure that everyone would identify as nerds — I watched some decidedly non-nerdy moves on the dance floor — but in-your-face diversity and the absence of judgment brings this party to life. Anti-Prom is open to teens from any borough, and it’s also free, which was a huge consideration for many attendees who said that a single prom ticket today can cost upwards of $100.

The beautiful entrance hall of the historic Schwartzman building on Fifth Avenue is not a setting that needs dressing up with cardboard decorations. The teens themselves bring the theme — this year, “Gods & Goddesses” — through their style and swagger.

The library partners with the High School for Fashion Industries, which runs an after-school Anti-Prom program where young designers create original, on-theme looks to debut in a fashion show during the party. The students are supported in every step of the process, from using the library’s archives for research to receiving help with drafting a pattern, buying materials, and making a completed ensemble — like Project Runway, but without the competition and cattiness. The marble steps of the library are converted into a catwalk where models, accompanied by the designers, showcase the results. A lot of the young designers departed from the standard Grecian or Roman deities, and though I did see the goddess of love and the god of fire, there were also influences from Asian and African nations, including a fantastic half-skull mask and beaded headdress. Interpreted broadly and globally, these gods showcased an intersection of cultures, imagination, and theatricality.

But masks, capes, sequins, and color were not only for the runway: The scene on the dance floor made me think that some of these young people would fit right in at a Susanne Bartsch club night. In spite of the radical attitude Anti-Prom still selects a royal court, decided by the adult staff, to reflect the effort put into a look and spirit of the night. 2017’s king and queen were Eugene Matthews and Harry Wade, in almost matching dapper suits and bow ties; they were chosen because their love and positivity synced with the night as a whole. When they were crowned, the crowd erupted in cheers, and a few of us bystanders were blinking away tears at how effusive their joy was, how happily and un-self-consciously they celebrated a same-sex pairing. I even feel weird describing them as a “same-sex couple,” as though writing the words deliberately singles them out as different. It didn’t feel that way. They were just the king and queen, and they were beautiful.

In a lot of ways, LGBTQ kids today are in a better place than generations before, but that doesn’t mean queer youth don’t face discrimination, bullying, or worse from their peers, family, or cultural group. According to Colman-McGaw: “There's still so much work to be done! And that work exists within the community and for allies or those who haven't yet learned how to be an ally. I would say, beyond visibility for underrepresented identities, there is a lot of transphobia that queer kids have to deal with, often explicitly.”

This year’s Anti-Prom falls just one week from the first anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, a tragic memory the community is painfully aware of. Although the party is an escape from negativity, several teens mentioned Orlando, and the last election, as factors that make this event special to them. Said Hannah Peterson, who just finished her sophomore year, “We need things that are going to bring kids together... and realize that differences are okay and not everyone’s going be the same.” Zhané Fischer, who will be a senior next fall, felt similarly. “I appreciate the diversity, there are a lot of different types of people here, and it’s more accessible.” And according to Francine, a mysterious masked figure in a full lace gown, “We have to do our best to make the best life that we can.”

With so many boundaries being shattered, why make it a “prom” at all? Why not come up with an alternative, radical new format for the next generation? It seems that in spite of the fact that it’s based on conventions of the dominant culture that are fundamentally heteronormative, prom is still, for every teen I spoke to, first and foremost an occasion to have fun and celebrate the end of the year. Prom means something in our culture because generations of young people have invested it with meaning.

The party’s theme brought to mind Neil Gaiman’s sci-fi fiction, American Gods. In this invented reality, the gods of the “old world” are imported to America through the force of their believer’s faith. Over time, the devotion of the faithful is challenged by the new gods, powerful forces of post-modernity, like media and technology. In a way, the gods and goddesses brought to being at Anti-Prom enact a similar struggle: straddling old and new worlds, or at least old and new ways of thinking. On one hand, Anti-Prom keeps the faith, maintaining rituals and rites of prom; but on the other, it offers a bold departure — a place for youth who don’t conform to enjoy it on their own terms.

Special thanks to the following teen attendees who took the time to speak for this article: Hannah Peterson, Zhané Fischer, Phillip Tracey, Francine , Sydney, Matt, and Christian.

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