Philadelphia's alternative prom celebrates 20 years

David Acosta, founder of GALAEI, started an alternative prom for LGBT teens 20 years ago. (BEN MIKESELL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

LIZ LOPEZ went to her prom last month. She wore a dress. She brought a date, a guy. And then she mostly stood around.

She didn't feel totally comfortable, the 17-year-old told me. Not at the prom. Not in the dress.

Tonight, Lopez, who is bisexual, is headed to the alternative prom for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens hosted by GALAEI, a queer Latino social-justice organization in Norris Square.

When we talked Wednesday, Lopez still wasn't sure what she'd wear; maybe a dress, she said. Maybe, she was slow to admit, a tuxedo she really wanted to wear to her school prom but didn't because "people would probably think it was weird."

Whatever she wears, Lopez can't wait to go.

"It's just going to be good to hear everyone's story, to hear how everyone handles things," said Lopez, who only recently started sharing that she's bisexual with friends and family who tell her it's a phase.

"It's not a phase," she said.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Philadelphia's alternative prom, which organizers say is the longest running prom of its kind in the country.

A lot has changed since David Acosta, founder of GALAEI, came up with the idea. Same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states. In 2010, two gay best friends at an upstate New York high school were crowned prom king and queen. In 2013, a transgender teen was crowned homecoming queen at an Orange County, Calif., high school. Just this month, President Obama appointed transgender attorney Shannon Price Minter to the Commission on White House Fellowships.

But for as much progress as there's been, nationwide headlines show LGBT youths still have to fight for what should be a memorable rite of passage for every teenager.

In 2013, a Pennsylvania high school banned a transgender teen for running for prom king and briefly threatened to keep his girlfriend from attending when she criticized the school's principal online. They eventually let his girlfriend accompany him but did not let him run for prom king.

In 2014, a Queens, N.Y., student at a Christian high school was told she wasn't allowed to bring her transgender boyfriend to prom. That same year, a group of Indiana-based parents, teens and even a teacher pushed for a separate "traditional" prom that would ban gay students. In March, a transgender teen who made headlines in 2014 when he was crowned homecoming king at his Charlotte, N.C., high school, committed suicide at 18.

So no wonder hundreds of youths flock to the alternative prom every year, to a place where they feel welcomed and empowered. Where they aren't the exception, but the rule.

"Maybe 10 or 20 years from now teens might not feel there's a need for it," Acosta said. "But clearly they still find value in it." This year's prom will be at the William Way Community Center on Spruce Street.

Acosta recalled how excited even the adult chaperones were at the first prom, eager to experience a milestone many couldn't when they were teens. "I had to remind some that it was for the kids," Acosta laughed.

Francisco Zavala Cortes, youth coordinator at GALAEI, said this year's event pays tribute to past proms while acknowledging that even with advancements in how LGBT youth are treated, many still struggle to be accepted.

"It would be great if the purpose of the alternative prom turned from one of the few affirming spaces for many LGBT youths to just another place where they can be themselves," Zavala Cortes said. "Things have certainly improved, but I'd argue that our society isn't as affirming and supportive as [it] can be."

"We not only say it's OK for you to come dressed however you feel comfortable but with whoever you want, too," he said. "We not only accept it, we support it."

That means a dress or a tuxedo for Liz Lopez. Whichever feels right to her.


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