The decorated table of Prom For All
The decorated table of Prom For All

Prom – for all

June 3, 2023

I look into my bedroom mirror on Friday, May 19. I see my colorful face stickers, an excessive amount of accessories and my blue wig, Ciara, that was given to me on my 16th birthday tied into pigtails. I take a deep breath to try to suppress some of the hope I have for the event that I am about to attend. Even so I couldn’t ignore the fact that I didn’t choose that lavender, glittery princess dress, but  something I feel secure and comfortable in.

“I guess I’m still left with some faith,” I say to myself.

What does prom mean to you?

What does prom mean to you?

Everyone would likely have different answers to that question. If I have to be completely honest, it’s more than just a dance or a goodbye party: it’s a bucket-list event that you cannot experience again once you’re no longer a teenager, or at least it would feel very different. It’s a celebration of school spirit, teen spirit and the last moments you can enjoy cute outfits, music and good times without facing the anxiety of college enrollment and upcoming adulthood. Although we probably share the same opinion, I think I have a unique story to tell.

Different from lots of Chinese kids, American sitcoms, vines and 2015 pop songs from Katy Perry and Taylor Swift were a big component of my childhood. I remember being one of the members of the “Euro&US Circle” in “QQ,” a Chinese social app that was popular among teens back in the day. People in that little circle all shared similar interests of European and American pop culture like music, film, tv and fashion. I was just around eight years old, which made me a young member in the circle, but I got to build some amazing online friendships by talking to people in group chats, posting pictures in the “QQ Zone” and sharing the latest news and gossip of a singer or actor. It was a small but warm community. One thing that connected me to the other people in the circle the most was our passion and yearning for the free lifestyle of the people in US and Europe: the diversity and acceptance in these places. This is not to say we all felt like we lived in a miserable place, but for us back then it just seemed so different. We wished that we could take our own heavily-filtered pictures on a California beach, visit Times Square during the promotion of “1989,” and, yes, have fun at prom like the happy American high school kids in TV shows like “Glee.” Was it the propaganda of the American dream? I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that I was among those who truly, wholeheartedly dreamed of such a life.

The truth is, it was even more so for me being a queer kid who already felt rather isolated from the majority of my peers. Prom has always been one of the things I most longed for. It started out with the pictures and videos that some Chinese news accounts would translate and post during the graduation season here in the U.S., showing the moments of this event called prom, where teenagers get to dance in formal dresses, take pictures and have fun.  The positive energy those pictures emit made me realize for the first time in my life what I wanted. This want was even more solidified after I found out that these moments could belong to everyone from the scenes of shows like “13 Reasons Why” and movies like “Love, Simon.” All of these had given me hope. These were worth working hard for, because I wanted to get to experience them, as they seemed so pure and beautiful.

And so I did. I would be lying if I say I’m not privileged in a sense that I had the full support of my family to pursue education abroad. After all, they are the ones that watched me giggle to my phone screen with my wired earphones on the living room sofa. The reality is that most of my online besties didn’t have the chance to really experience the things that we wished for. They would take the Chinese “Gao kao” exams, get through university, get a job and slowly disconnect with people that were in the circle. That’s the reason why I cherish my opportunity to learn here, because it feels like I’m carrying a responsibility for the dreams of all of us. Thanks to the fact that I’ve been influenced by cultures of English-speaking countries since I was little, my English skill was more advanced than any of my classmates, which has helped me perform better in English-based tests of my international school curriculum. Great academic performances and an intuitive personality won me a chance to be the only person – and really the last person – from my school to be able to exchange to an American high school for a year. I almost felt overwhelmed when I got on the plane to Presque Isle, Maine, a place that I knew nothing about. What I knew was that there would be a prom, school would end at 2:40 pm, I would experience a prep-rally, homecoming, and all of these events that I’d only heard good things about. “I did it.” I said to myself, proudly, imagining my life like the movie I’ve seen a million times.

What I got was different.

Of course, I knew that not everything would be the same as fiction, but it just seems those events that I wished for are always enjoyed the most by the same group of people. Time ran and ran and suddenly it was the day of the prom. I was lucky to be invited by a kind friend, and I thought to myself, “This is it.”

I dressed up in the lavender dress that I specifically bought for the event, spent three hours on my make-up and hair, got on a bike for the parade cause why not? It’s so cool to show up like that to the only prom of my life.

I had faith, so much faith. Because what I saw in my own elementary school student’s eyes was nothing about gender, sexual orientation or race. What I saw were just snapshots with people who always looked like they were having a good time. 

But all of them were broken, shattered to the ground. In the prom parade, I was looking for my date who was in a car. I didn’t have my phone, and I was anxious and insecure from the gazes of others and the fact that I was on a bike and not in one of those fancy cars. And it was at that moment when I was the most vulnerable, someone in that group of students that’s always been celebrated, whom I’ve never even spoken to, said in the harshest tone that I have ever heard, that I need to get away from his car when I was just trying to ask a question. I could see it from his eyes and gestures millions and millions of people like him, on the top of the privilege tower, degrading, scorning people like me. That made me feel small.

I was not welcomed by him, and I have never felt a message so clearly.

I was not welcomed by him, and I have never felt a message so clearly.

I have never felt so different from anyone else because we are all humans, but after that I did. But why? I was so shocked and confused. I’ve never done anything to him and I just couldn’t figure out why he would say such a thing. I looked around, and I saw the people in these cars, the people that watched what happened and just stared at me without doing anything. They all look just like him. I’ve realized from that moment that the heroes of the stories that I have drawn hope and inspirations from don’t have the color of my skin, don’t dress the way I do. I was naive to think that people would ignore these factors that are supposed to be irrelevant and celebrate everyone’s happiness with love – because that’s the expectation I had, that’s what they told me about this place for as long as I can remember.

And so I stayed back until the prom parade had finished, and the others had accepted the applause and cheers I had wanted. I questioned myself what I’ve been working so hard for – and that was the first time I’ve ever done that.

I still had fun on the prom dance floor, but I just couldn’t keep the encounter from haunting me. Especially when I saw him dancing with that group of people like he didn’t just destroy a dream of many people.

I took my time to meditate, to heal and to be around with people that don’t make me question my choices. My strength has come back to me as it always does. It’s painful to accept the reality that minorities still have such a long way to go to be celebrated by the mainstream, and I have downgraded the hopes I had for other American experiences. However, I’ve never questioned my own value, or the effort I’ve put in and all the positives that have resulted from that. All of this has made me so much more mature. At the same time, I guess I feel bad for the teenager that’s forced to grow inside of my heart.

Two weeks after the school prom, I found myself in front of my bedroom mirror, dressing myself up for a special prom – Prom For All, hosted by Pride Aroostook in UMPI on May 19. I had struggled about attending. How would they make sure we’re safe? How could I trust another awful encounter wouldn’t happen again? These inner voices distracted me, but I thought about the time when I went to the walkout that they hosted. Even though there weren’t lots of people, every one of them brought love and positivity. Ever since that experience I’ve been wanting to be around with those people again. For that, I chose to put my trust in this event because I believed it would be a great one. I saw that event not only as a dance to have fun, but as a sort  of compensation. It was my last attempt to see if my childhood dream would ever come true. So I gave up on a chance of a road trip on that Friday, took my shower, got ready just as thoroughly as I did for the school prom. Suddenly, there was a lot of pressure on the event for my expectations. But they didn’t know that.I walked upstairs of the campus center more nervous than ever, because I didn’t know if I could handle my glued-together hope being shattered again. But again, I trusted it would be different.

I was greeted by everyone when I showed up at the door. No one seemed shocked or confused about how I looked or dressed, in fact, they were all dressed up and as happy as I was. To be honest, I couldn’t find any sense of judgment in all of those eyes, even though I tried hard to. 

The site was just as big as an actual prom site if not bigger, there were snacks, sodas, a DJ, a photo booth and decorated tables. Everything was the same as the prom you would imagine. A friend of mine excitedly said hi to me as soon as I sat down. There were people of all ethnicities and gender identities talking, dancing and having fun. The gazes thrown upon me were respectful and appreciative, and I felt immediately linked to the vibe. I walked to the center of the dance floor with the same date of my school prom, which is something I wouldn’t have had the chance to do there. 

It’s hard to put into words how I felt that entire night. I remember songs by girl in red and from Heartstopper, group pictures in front of the big glittery backdrop, the fact I felt comfortable enough to vogue in front of everyone and got cheers. I exchanged social media with total strangers, I gave and received countless compliments, I closed my eyes and felt the spotlight on my eyelids during one of my favorite songs, and I just swayed my body like nobody was watching, and when I opened my eyes again, all of those people were looking at me in a way that made me feel so big, not small, I felt like I could conquer the world.

“That’s it, Xavier, that’s it,” I whispered to myself when the euphoria hit its peak. My eyes drifted to the faces of that diverse bunch of people, who have so many different life experiences and backgrounds, but all gathered there enjoying ourselves in the event that they have probably been dreaming about, just like me. I saw me in all of them, and at that moment I realized what prom really means to me.

I was having so much fun at Prom For All

Prom is not a thing to be idolized, romanticized or dreamed about. It is for us to remember our adolescence that we only get to have once in our lives. It is not a celebration for just a specific group of people, but an experience that all humans deserve to have.

Prom is not a thing to be idolized, romanticized or dreamed about. It is for us to remember our adolescence that we only get to have once in our lives. It is not a celebration for just a specific group of people, but an experience that all humans deserve to have.

I asked Kate Easter, member of the planning committee of Prom of All, why they think it’s important to host the event. They pointed out the importance of giving youth in minority groups a safe space and the importance of being visible and being seen. Isn’t that true? Minorities have fought discrimination, exclusion and equal rights for centuries and we have remained. We would always be there as long as one of us still standing, breathe the air that everyone else breathes and fight for the rights that we deserve to have.

From my experience, I have accepted the reality that not every prom in this world right now is for all. I believe someday, me, my community, and you who are reading this, could make a difference to make not just prom, but every celebration, welcoming to every human, and we will all feel safe and comfortable dancing under the same roof, because that’s what eight-year-old me thought it should be. Our goal won’t be achieved until we prove to millions of people who have the same hope as I had that it should be like that, it can be like that and it will be like that.

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