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Prom night must become a beacon of inclusivity

Opinion

Published by:

2 July 2019

Author: Tori West

Image: Take Back The Prom by DoSomething

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It’s time to put outdated traditions to rest. Schools across the globe have a responsibility to provide inclusive events that are open to all.

Since the 1920s, the prom has served as a high school milestone, but historically it has always been an exclusive affair. Originally, it was racially segregated (shockingly, Mississippi's last segregated prom took place in 2008) and girls were forbidden from wearing masculine clothing. In addition, the prohibitive cost of attending has also meant that working-class students have often found themselves excluded.

Unfortunately, little has changed. Proms are still pricey, heterosexual and gender normative occasions, excluding non-binary individuals through traditions like ‘prom king and queen’. ‘As a gay guy, I always felt too scared to have a gay date in case it was the talk of college,’ London-based stylist Will Larkin told LS:N Global via social media.

In order to ensure that everyone feels comfortable in their sexualities and gender identities at these events, we as a society need to completely rethink what a prom should be. This is exactly what DoSomething,org, the largest organisation for young people and social change, aimed to do with its recent campaign, Take Back the Prom. The campaign was a movement to create the most inclusive proms nationwide in the US through a series of four activations: a prom formalwear outfit donation drive to ensure every student could look amazing on prom night, an advocacy toolkit and one-on-one coaching to help students advocate for gender-inclusive prom courts at their schools, the creation of a map of prom discrimination from students across the country to raise awareness and visibility for this issue, and a text line with tips on how to beat prom anxiety.

Beyond America, the UK-based event Queer Prom organises proms aimed at LGBT+ people. ‘The school dance and the school prom are still very heteronormative experiences,’ Jules Guaitamacchi, who runs the event with partner Vicki, told the BBC last year. By scrapping dress codes and the notion of ‘prom king and queen’, Queer Prom provides a space for LGBT+ people who may not have enjoyed their high school bash, an opportunity to do things their way.

'In order to ensure that everyone feels comfortable in their sexualities and gender identities at these events, we as a society need to completely rethink what a prom should be.'

This is Out Prom, A Prom to Degender by MTV
'To allow people to feel comfortable in their sexualities and gender identities, we need to scrap the traditional structures of [the prom] altogether.'

In addition to the anxiety-inducing traditions, there are also financial factors that can make the prom an overwhelming experience for many. Last week, a school in Wales made headlines across the UK when it discovered some pupils were not attending a prom due to the high cost of an outfit. The school’s headteacher put out an appeal on social media for people to donate gowns that students could rent for free, a service that Take Back the Prom also offers on its site. ‘There has to be a child in every school in the country that feels ostracised because they can't afford it. They would rather not go,’ says Helen Jones, Maesteg Comprehensive School’s head teacher. ‘There's enough pressure on teenagers already without that. There's a reason we have uniforms in schools.’

The school, which is based in Maesteg, also arranged free shuttles to deter the costly hire fees of fancy limousine transport to the event. ‘What we're trying to remove is the potential barriers that may prevent some pupils from attending what should be an event to celebrate a fantastic achievement to complete their formal education,’ explained Jones.

And so, with prom season well under way, it is imperative to remember that young people should not have to compromise on who they are or miss out on important milestones. It falls to all of us – schools, brands and parents alike – to help change the narrative around these outdated traditions.

Tori West is the editor of Bricks magazine, an independent, intersectional feminist publication that explores sociopolitical issues in fashion and art.

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