New York Times 5/22/1994

On May 22, 1994, The New York Times covered one of the first public school LGBT proms that took place after the passage of the Gay and Lesbian Student Rights Law, which I worked on in 1993.

More from Kit R. Roane:

On Friday night, Paul Rivera, a slim 16-year-old from Diamond Bar High School in Walnut Valley, Calif., put on his tuxedo, clipped on his bow tie and went to the junior-senior prom, a rite of passage for millions of high school students around the nation.

But Mr. Rivera did not attend the prom in his hometown. Nor did he drive to other proms nearby. To do so would have risked more of the slurs, threats and violence he says he endures every day at his school.

Instead, he and his date, Christopher Barlow, also 16, from nearby Littlerock, traveled 40 miles west to Los Angeles and joined 100 other couples at a citywide prom for gay and lesbian students called Live to Tell. Although similar dances have been held in cities like Boston and Detroit, this was the first prom sponsored by a school district, national gay rights groups said.

“I was told I would get my butt kicked or bashed if I took my date to my school prom,” said Mr. Rivera, whose foster father drove them and Mr. Rivera’s 15-year-old brother, Steven, to the event. “I am used to being harassed. But I didn’t want to subject my date to it.”

He did not have to.

After passing a small group of protesters outside the Hilton Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the three youths found themselves in a well-furnished ballroom with a parquet dance floor, several dozen banquet tables and hundreds of pink-and-white balloons. A disk jockey spun hip-hop tunes and house music, a younger generation’s rock-and-roll.

1994-05-21-NYTed2-image-16x8-72dpi New York Times 1994 LGBTQ

And no one batted an eye when Mr. Rivera dragged Fernando Rodriguez, a friend from Los Angeles, onto the dance floor. “This is so exciting,” Mr. Rivera said. “It’s like I’d always dreamed it would be.”

An old high school friend spotted Mr. Barlow and was surprised to find out he is gay. “I always thought Chris was interesting,” said William Walker, 18, who said he had left home more than a year ago because of abuse and now lives in Los Angeles. “But I wasn’t ‘out’ then.”

School administrators agreed to sponsor the prom after students promised to pay for it through private donations. Off-duty police officers were hired for security, and 25 adults volunteered to be chaperones.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, after New York City, offers an alternative school for gay and lesbian teen-agers called the Eagle Center. It is patterned after the only other one like it, the Harvey Milk School in Greenwich Village, but it has space for only 42 students, while the prom reached many more.

“This is my prom,” said Matthew Noural, who spent months making a black lycra-and-lace dress for the occasion. “And it feels absolutely wonderful. There is no hate here.”

Even the protesters refrained from slurs. Instead, they distributed pamphlets and tried to convert the youths as they passed.

“We’re not here to gay-bash or be homophobes,” said the Rev. William Ervin. “But this prom is promoting negative feelings that are sinful.”

There are roughly two million gay and lesbian adolescents in the United States, a recent Harris Poll found. Beginning in the late 1980’s, studies by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and others have found that these teen-agers have high suicide rates, and that alcohol and drug abuse are common.

“This prom is aptly titled Live to Tell,” said Jerry Batter, the director of the Eagle Center. “These kids need to be recognized and appreciated for who they are — not just in Los Angeles, but across the nation. And if we make the effort, there will be fewer kids slitting their wrists and jumping off overpasses.”

As the event wound down, some participants took part in another prom ritual: Off in a corner, a few couples were obviously quarreling.

By 11 P.M., Mr. Rivera’s date was nowhere to be found.

“We kind of broke up,” he said sheepishly. “But I’m really happy, kind of nauseous from all the dancing, but really happy.” Fingering his class ring, he added: “I decided that I am going to my own prom next year. They can’t stop me now.”