In many ways, it was like the prom you might remember fondly — or less than fondly — from your youth: an auditorium festooned with balloons and paper mache decorations, a huge bowl of punch, the coronation of a king and queen, and a band kicking out dance-friendly tunes while a roving photographer snapped the prom-going moments into keepsakes.
But in many ways, the LGBTQ Senior Prom, held in June during Pride Month at the Institute on Aging in San Francisco, had some profound differences: Many prom-goers were aided by walkers, hearing aids, oxygen tanks, and service animals — and nearly all were over the age of 60.
And upon closer look, there were other differences, too. Rainbow-colored leis, boas, bowties, and boutonnieres were offered, free for the taking. A contingent of conga-liners wearing sparkly red gowns and pastel wigs done up in beehives snaked around the dance floor. The musical selections were unsubtle reinforcements of the gay pride theme: “I’m Coming Out,” “I Will Survive,” “Lady Marmalade,” “Respect.” Many prom-goers wore T-shirts emblazoned with slogans: “Resist,” “We the People Means Everyone,” “Keep America Diverse.” Few who attended came with dates. The king and queen were both women.
And entertainment was provided by Donna Personna, one of the stars of the film “Beautiful By Night,” [watch below] a documentary that chronicles three older drag entertainers in San Francisco. In the film, Personna explains the drag life while gluing on a false eyelash: “I’m popular. I think part of it is my age. My age informs who I am.”
An invitation to the event noted: “Everyone deserves to grow older with dignity and pride, and without having to hide who they are. We strongly support LGBTQ rights and feel that older adults, who had to spend much of their lives hiding, deserve to celebrate who they are. These aren’t special rights: These are basic human needs that are just, fair, and moral.”
Prom Planning Considerations
But the person credited as being the brainchild for the gay senior prom is Karyn Skultety. She was on staff at the Institute on Aging last year, when the first prom was held. A few months ago, she left to become executive director at Open House, which provides housing, direct services, and community programs to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors overcome the unique challenges they face as they age. The two groups together sponsored this year’s prom.
“My idea was to give LGBT people a second chance to try an experience they might have missed out on—and not try to make it the typically heterosexual event it usually is,” Skultety says. “And I spent a lot of time thinking about the differences between what younger and older LGBT people have gone through in their lifetimes. I feel infinitely glad and proud of what older people did to move our rights forward. Comparatively, younger people have had a much easier road. How do we thank them?”
She ruminated on how to overcome some of the common concerns about the event — and gave pointers for those interested in starting up a similar senior prom in their own locales.
- Seek out diverse views. “It’s really important to include different people with differing perspectives on the planning committee — especially people you would want to attend the event,” Skultety says. “We used them to give us feedback about what would feel right to them.”
- Make it intergenerational. “We had at least 30 people under age 50 attend. I think those interactions are important as a part of this event,” she said. “This isn’t about us doing something for seniors. It’s about people of all ages coming together as a community.”
- Encourage going solo. “People feel nervous about coming without a date. You’re already working with people who feel isolated, so you want to emphasize that they should feel free to come alone, and can meet new people at the event,” she says.
- Ease up on the dress code. “Many people were worrying about what they would wear. We serve a diverse income population, so didn’t want to have a dress code that they couldn’t afford. Instead, we provided fun accessories people could take if they wanted.”
- Blow up all those norms. “Really be sure you’re not recreating a typical senior prom,” she says. “Let the experience be completely different to incorporate what LGBT people need and want in their lives. Emphasize the positive: You can dance and have fun.”
- Keep it safe. “We live in San Francisco, an area where we can put out postcards and fliers for the event without much worry. For other spots, think about how to make it safe for people. Even here, where we had people traveling across city in vans, we made sure there were familiar faces onboard. That may be one place that younger people can also help.”
Removing the Trauma of Past Proms
Skultety served as an emcee at this year’s senior prom, warming up the crowd of about 130 attendees.
“If you’re 55 or younger, sit down,” she said. “I feel strongly that many of us are not the superheroes here. It’s the LGBT elders who have led us in our movement. This event is especially for them — to help remove any traumatic memories that may still exist from past proms.”
Skultety then directed prom-goers to clear a space on the dance floor. “It’s about to be taken over by a hurricane, a force of nature — and surely one of the people here with the most ‘stage age’,” she said. In slinked Donna Personna, clad in a flowing pink gown and sky-high heels. No one in the room — even the wallflowers — could resist clapping along as Personna lipsynched through a sexy rendition of “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love,” and then declared: “It’s my very first prom. And it’s fabulous.”
A representative from Sundance Saloon, which bills itself as “San Francisco’s LGBT Country-Western Dance Club,” then taught the many wannabe line dancers in the room a simple routine, with modifications for those with limited movement. “You can just move your hands instead of your feet,” he said encouragingly, as more than 100 people joined in. “You are the entertainment!”
The most exuberant dancer bobbed to the beat in her wheelchair.
‘I Think I’m Going to Dance at This One’
Most people said it was the first prom they had ever attended.
One man said that prom hadn’t been a possibility for him when he was younger. “I had to leave high school early because I was so badly bullied every day,” he said. “No one called it ‘bullying’ back then, though.”
Another, jauntily attired in a sequined jacket, hung near the back of the room, observing in awe: “I can’t believe I’m actually at a prom,” he said.
“Last year, I had a hip replacement. It got infected, and they had to take it out again. I was laid up for months and I got really depressed,” said another attendee. “Now that I’m better, I want to go everywhere, and really have as much fun as I can. And what better way to start than this prom? I’ve never been to one — and this is very, very nice.”
It wasn’t the first time for a woman sporting a rainbow-colored wig in an outsize afro. “I went to a prom once in Texas when I was a teen,” she said. “Back then, women didn’t ask other women to dance. But I think I’m going to dance at this one.”
Then she did.
Photo Credit: Anita Bowen Photography.