Remembering Prom

First published at on March 26, 2010

Recent reports about students in Mississippi and Georgia seeking to bring same-sex dates to prom stirred memories of my own prom experience.

The year was 1987. I was “straight” then—or so I convinced myself. I knew I had “gay feelings” (as I put it), I knew I had no straight feelings, and I knew that people with gay feelings but no straight feelings are gay. And yet, by not letting these various ideas “touch,” I avoided drawing the obvious conclusion. (This, from someone who would later teach elementary logic.)

I had never been on a date with a woman before, or even kissed one. Sure, there was that time in fifth grade when I played spin-the-bottle, but as soon as I figured out what the game was, I ran from the room.

By the time I reached junior high and high school and noticed my “gay feelings,” it was easy to find excuses:

“I go to an all-boys Catholic school; I don’t know any girls,” I told myself and anyone in earshot. “Besides, I’m planning on becoming a priest” (which was true, starting around sophomore year). Pressure’s off!

Except that it wasn’t. Because my “normal” friends, even the ones who planned on priesthood, sought and found girls. I wasn’t feeling what I was “supposed” to feel, and it frightened me.

Patty Anne was someone with whom I served on the parish council. She went to an all-girls Catholic school. I called to invite her to my prom, she accepted, and minutes later she called back to invite me to hers. They were on consecutive nights, so I got a deal on the tux rental.

My prom went smoothly, and at the end of the evening, I gave her a prim kiss on the cheek.

Her prom was a little more involved. One of her friends with whom we were sharing the limo hosted a small pre-event party. Upon arriving, I had two very gay thoughts in rapid succession:

(1) [Upon seeing Patty:] That dress is hideous compared to last night’s.

(2) [Upon seeing her friends’ dates, all of whom were from a local military academy and looked stunningly handsome in their dress whites:] Uhhhhhh….HELLO!

I laugh about this now, but at the time, (2) was terrifying. Not-noticing girls was one thing, but noticing guys was quite another. And these guys, all dressed up and nicely groomed to impress their girlfriends, were hard for me not to notice.

These were the sorts of things spinning through my head on the post-prom limo ride to a club in Manhattan. Patty and I had the backwards-facing seats on either side of a small television; the remaining couples shared a large bench-seat facing forward.

Suddenly, the other couples started making out.

“Thank god for this little television separating us,” I thought.

But the television couldn’t protect me. Before I knew it, Patty was sitting on my lap.

We made out. It felt wrong—and that frightened me further.

When the limo dropped me home later that morning, I needed to “process,” so I hopped into my car and drove over to my best friend Michael’s house.

It was 6 a.m., and I stood in his backyard in my disheveled tux, throwing clothespins at his window to rouse him without waking his parents. (When his mother finally entered the kitchen, she glanced at me and asked, “Oh John—would you like an English muffin?” as if there were nothing unusual about daybreak guests in black tie.)

I think that conversation with Michael was the first time I told anyone other than a priest or a psychologist that I had “gay feelings.”—all the while continuing to insist that I was basically straight. Baby steps.

A year later, when I moved from “gay feelings” to just plain “gay,” Michael was among the first people I came out to. It would take another year beyond that before he mustered the courage to come out to me.

Which brings us back to Constance McMillen in Mississippi and Derrick Martin in Georgia, two brave young souls.

Constance’s prom has been canceled. A private prom is being held instead, and many of her classmates claim to hate her for “ruining” their regular prom.

Derrick, by contrast, will be allowed to attend prom with his boyfriend. The bad news is that his parents have kicked him out of the house over the incident.

How many more children must suffer because of these perverted values? How many more must live in silence and in fear, forced to choose between pretense and rejection, all while being denied the simple joys their peers take for granted?

For that matter, how many more adults must suffer?

That last question became especially poignant after I received comments from Michael on a draft of this column.

You see, Patty Anne, Constance, and Derrick are all their real names. “Michael” is not. He asked me to change it because, as he put it, “I am still pretty covert in my professional life.”