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Today is Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Come As You Are

[DES MOINES, IA] - A group of young women crowd together for a picture in front of the rainbow-colored sculpture outside the Botanical Center. It's fittingly symbolic of tonight's Alternative Prom.

Chris Smith's cowgirl getup is the closest to alternative dress. A cowboy hat rests on her shaved head and cowboy boots adorn her feet.

Jala Zenor and Cassy Kling both wear prom dresses. Zenor's dress is cream colored with shoulder straps. It was passed down from Smith's ex-brother-in-law's new girlfriend.

Kling's gown, which she bought at Fashion Bug, is long and light blue. She's the shy one of the group who wears a permanent smile but talks rarely.

Ashli Cowles is Kling's date. She chose the more relaxed look of a one-strap orange tank top and khaki pants. Youth Alliance's prom is far from formal. It provides a relaxed atmosphere of inclusion for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered teenagers. Supportive heterosexuals are also welcome.

"There's nothing different about it except for they're gay and lesbian," says Michael Skinner, a prom committee organizer. "It's not alternative. It's just like any other prom.

"As at any school dance, the majority of teens come late. They mingle a little after arriving. Close to 9 p.m., the dance picks up. Guys dance with guys. Women dance with women. Guys dance with women. No stares, no glares and no one cares.

Earlier, Skinner, 19, and his date went out to eat at Romano's Macaroni Grill. They arrived in dress clothes but left to change to more casual attire. Later they're going to a local dance club.

"We're going to go out to Club Statik and dance the night away," he says.

Aaron Ness, 21, has been on the dance floor most of the night. He's chaperoning the dance. Working with gay and lesbian youths is something he wants to do with his life.

Tonight is a positive option to the negative influences like the "gay loop" along West River Drive, he says.

"It's unfortunate that's what Iowa provides for young gay people. A street by the river that they can go get drunk, high and (where) prostitution probably happens," he says.

It's been a couple of years, but at one time, he would frequent the loop.

"That was my option," he says. "You can only go to the bookstore and coffee shop so often.

"Catching up with Cowles and Kling on the patio, Cowles makes it known that the music isn't to her liking. That's why she and her friends aren't dancing. She'd prefer a more current play list.

"They've played a lot of '80s," says Cowles, 17.

Following the dance, Cowles, Kling, Zenor and Smith are planning to head over to Billy Joe's Pitcher Show to watch "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

"We try to spend as much time together, but I'm homeless, and we all have different jobs at different times," Cowles says. "This is the one day that we've all had off."

Attending East High School has been a major source of misery for Cowles.

"I'm not really out at school," she says. "It's just that they think I'm gay. If they think that you are, you're going to get tormented.

"Cowles has reached the point where she doesn't care anymore."

It doesn't matter anymore because I'm going to be who I am," she says.

The B-52s' "Love Shack" is the icebreaker everyone's been waiting for. Under the flashing rainbow colors emitted from the mirror ball, the dance floor fills.

This is Chris Smith's first Alternative Prom. She came with Jala Zenor, but says her date will catch up with her at 10:30. Then it's off to "Rocky Horror."

"'Rocky' is another place where you can go and be yourself, whether you're gay or straight," says Smith, 20.

The prom is important because it's promoting unity, she says.

"We don't have a lot of stuff like this every year," Smith says. "It's a really good opportunity for people to be themselves instead of having to have a beard or a fake.

"Madonna's "Vogue" comes on and Smith leaves to dance with Cowles and Kling.Sitting on the patio, Jala Zenor recalls why she dropped out of Roosevelt High School two weeks before graduation. Late one night while working on a drama project, she had a knife put to her throat, she says. It was the same year she revealed that she was bisexual. "High school was a bitch," says Zenor with a half-laugh and a half-sigh.

The most easygoing and outgoing person in her group, she says life is better now that she's found people who accept her.

The first piano notes from Brian Adams' "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" ring out. Cowles screams, "It's my song." She approaches Zenor and asks, "Jala, will you please come dance with me?" With little hesitation, she's slow-dancing with Cowles.

Robert Walk and Dustin Miller are also slow-dancing.Walk, 18, moved to West Des Moines from Michigan. Miller, 17, says he wouldn't be comfortable taking a same-sex date to his high school prom in Ankeny.

"We can't go to our own high school proms and have as much fun as we are now without ridicule or getting our asses kicked," Miller says.

The low turnout tonight makes Walk think they should have gone to Club Statik. Miller disagrees."This only happens once a year," Miller says. "We can still do both.

"Returning from dancing, Zenor picks up her previous conversation by talking about her family. Her dad has known that she's bisexual for a couple of years, but her mother found out a month ago. "My mom's in denial," she says.

The conversation veers back to what she's wearing.

"Usually I'm not a white-dressed person," Zenor says. "Usually I'm in black or dark colors. I've been kind of a gothic person all my life.

"The black plastic knee-high boots hint at her gothic side. They were a hand-me-down from a friend. "They're really hot, and it takes me 10 minutes to lace up each one," Zenor says. "They're a pain, but they're really cool."

She's looking forward to "Rocky Horror" later.

"I was going to change into a different dress for 'Rocky,' and I'm not going to now," she says. "I'm stuck in my prom dress for the whole entire night."

Regardless of their after-prom activities, Skinner says, "I just want everyone to walk away with a good feeling."

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