In the Rotunda Ballroom at Easton’s Beach in Newport, Rhode Island, 250 LGBTQ teens and young adults from thirty-five high schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island celebrated with friends old and new at the Tenth Annual Born This Way Prom on April 26, hosted by Channing Memorial Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Newport.
Dressed in prom finery and feted by a DJ, the prom-goers—LGBTQ youth and allies—danced, laughed, took photos against the stunning backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, and rode on the beach’s historic carousel.
“It’s a very special thing,” says Pam Goff, a member of Channing Memorial Church who co-founded the prom ten years ago and remains its primary organizer. “It’s hard to describe how happy all the young people are and how they see this love and warmth and encouragement coming from drag queens and other adult LGBTQ people and others.”
“It has just been an incredible space and opportunity for LGBTQ people to gather as a community, especially us young people,” says Sherenté Mishitashin Harris. “We can feel so separated as LGBTQ people, and here we have a place where we’re acknowledged.”
Harris is a citizen of the Narragansett Tribe and a two-spirit, which they describe “as a modern term that’s been adopted by the indigenous community that is supposed to represent the entirety of native people’s views toward LGBTQ people.”
Harris, who was crowned as prom queen the first year they attended, in 2016, and has returned each year, adds, “I think of the drag queens at the prom and people from older generations who attend, and it is such a beautiful thing to see how supportive and kind they are in wanting to help young people today feel proud of who they are and not feel they need to hide it.”
Goff, a straight cisgender woman, is a founding member of Interweave, Channing’s group for LGBTQ people and allies. In 2009, she and co-founder Lee Whittaker decided that Interweave should host an LGBTQ prom and contacted high schools around Rhode Island. Goff says they wanted to “get to young people and make them feel celebrated and loved because I knew a lot of organized religions do not.”
The inaugural prom was held at the Fraternal Order of Police Association in Middletown, but in 2010 it moved to the Rotunda, an oceanside venue with a spectacular view. In 2011, when Lady Gaga released her anthem Born This Way, the prom adopted that name. Each year, a highlight is the crowning of the prom king and queen; any prom-goer is eligible for either position, Goff notes.
“It’s such a heartwarming event,” says Rex LeBeau, a nonbinary person and sixth-generation UU who is officially the “Grand Poobah” of Channing’s Interweave group. “These kids are just so sweet. They come and they have a good time and they’re very kind and respectful to each other. It’s a really positive thing.”
LeBeau, who took over leadership of Interweave from Goff several years ago so Goff could focus on the prom, adds, “We see a number of kids who are food insecure, homeless. We get kids from all walks of life.” LeBeau adds that “a lot of these kids will craft their outfits out of who knows what, with innovative fashion ideas they can go and show off, and go with other queer friends and just dance and have a good time.”
The entire congregation rallies around the event, says LeBeau, with members of Interweave comprising the majority of prom volunteers. But there are volunteers from many other local organizations, they add.
Youth Pride, Inc., an organization in Providence that provides services to LGBTQ youth, including youth who are unhoused, promotes the prom. Another of its biggest supporters is the Imperial Court of Rhode Island at Providence, a fundraising and charitable organization based in the LGBTQ community whose members volunteer each year at the event. This year, the Imperial Court presented Goff with a check for $1,000. There are so many supporters that the event costs the church nothing besides the venue rental. Donations are optional at the door, and half of the proceeds go to Youth Pride, Inc., Goff says.