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Today is Wednesday, November 28, 2007


A Place to Go

Youth Alliance Provides a Safe Space for LGBT Youth

[DES MOINES,IA] - The high school prom may be a rite of passage, but the traditional dance is not always the most welcoming place for some youths. If you're a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender teen, showing up with a same-sex partner or donning formal wear not prescribed to your gender can often set the scene for awkward tension, scorn or harassment. Being a teenager provides enough anxiety on its own; who wants to go to an event where your differences are scrutinized?

That's where the Alternative Prom comes in. Coordinated by Youth Alliance, a local group that works to provide a safe community for youths who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered and their supporters, the Alternative Prom is a place where teens who, for one reason or another, don't feel comfortable going to their high school proms can enjoy the normal highs and lows of such a gala without fear of ridicule. It's an opportunity for them to celebrate who they are rather than hide it.

Seven years ago, Youth Alliance had discovered through teaming with Youth Outreach, a group that works with homeless kids, that homeless kids and youth who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered may not be able to take someone to the prom or even get to a prom. So Youth Alliance decided to provide an opportunity for those young people residents - gay and straight -- who didn't feel comfortable at their own proms or couldn't afford to go to a traditional prom to participate in similar festivities.

The Alternative Prom is somewhat like an extension of Youth Alliance's Safe Space, a weekly meeting of LGBT youth that allows participants to talk about what's going on in their lives and the gay community.

Committee member Michael Skinner got involved with the prom through Safe Space and says such programming is important for LGBT kids "who really need direction and really need a place that's going to be beneficial for them." Skinner says though he had a lot of support when he was younger, "there are a lot of kids whose parents aren't supportive when coming out or don't have anywhere to go, so it's really good for them to have somewhere to go where they can be themselves and not have to worry about all the stigma that's attached to [being gay]."

Skinner hopes the Alternative Prom has raised awareness of Youth Alliance's programs and events. "There are a lot youth who ... get involved with the Gay Loop and a lot of seedy places that might not be the best place for them. It's important to open up these places like Safe Space and the Young Women's Resource Center so they have somewhere to go that's not that seedy undercurrent where they can express themselves with people their age that aren't going to try to pick them up or whatever.

"There's such a stigma around being gay -- that you have to be a certain way, dress a certain way. Youth Alliance really opened my eyes to the fact that there are a lot of different kinds of people who are queer, and it's not just people that I would have thought fit the stereotype. It's a really good experience to meet those people and listen to stories about people coming out and doing things with other people that are really good."

Alternative Prom is just one of those opportunities. On June 7, Youth Alliance is scheduled to present the LGBTQ Film Festival, which starts at 7 p.m. at the First Unitarian Church at 1800 Bell Ave. The festival will feature "Adam," a funny short that Skinner says "will get people talking"; "Call Me Kate," a film about a transgendered girl; and "Surviving Friendly Fire," an hour-long documentary about a group of homeless youths in Hollywood who put together a theater performance about the cruelties and hardships they faced. The event also will include drag performers and the Iowa City Radical Cheerleaders, a lesbian troupe that will lead the crowd in "positive gay cheers."

And though these events help, Skinner says, "I feel like we need something in Des Moines that's maybe not just for queer youth but youth in general. Des Moines is maybe not so geared toward youth, so some youth get involved with things that aren't beneficial to them."

The Alternative Prom was open to everyone (though the organizers made sure to patrol the event for anything that made prom-goers uncomfortable - including someone cruising the scene to looking for kids to pick up) in an effort to bridge the gap between gay and straight kids.

"It would be nice if queer youth and straight youth just got together to learn from each other," Skinner says. "We'd like to see events such as these prompt both sides to open up dialogue."

Eventually, Skinner would like to see the Alternative Prom become obsolete. "Our main goal is to get rid of Alternative Prom," he says, "and have each person feel comfortable going to their own prom without feeling terrified or awkward."

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