The Daily Iowan, May 9, 1997
111 Communications Center,Iowa City,Ia.,52242
Fax 319-335-6184 - or- 335-6297, E-Mail:


By Chris Gardner, The Daily Iowan

This weekend, UI junior Nilsa Knievel will go back to high school for the prom she has always wanted

This time, she will wear the tuxedo, and her date will be a woman -- Iowa City West High School senior Whitney Barnes.

Knievel graduated from Iowa City High in 1994. At her own high school proms, Knievel, who was named senior class Homecoming queen, wore dresses and went with male friends. It wasn't until her freshman year at the UI that she came out as a lesbian.

Knievel and her girlfriend eagerly are awaiting their waltz into the Union Saturday night and said they don't think their non-conventional prom experience will draw a negative reaction from classmates.

"People get really upset because they see a gay couple going to prom and they see it as a break in tradition or that you're spoiling something," Knievel said. "I think what we are doing is horribly traditional -- we're a couple, we're dating and we're going to prom ."

What, this old thing?

It was hard for the couple to decide what to wear, because neither feels comfortable wearing dresses. Barnes gave in, though, and will wear an ankle-length black dress to fit her 5-foot-one-inch frame, with an open back to show off her new tattoo. Knievel, who will shave her legs, said she is going for the "James Bond-hitman look" with a black tuxedo and silk handkerchief.

"I always felt that even though I went to all my proms in high school I never went how I wanted to," Knievel said. "I would've felt more comfortable in a tux -- I feel like a fullback when I wear a dress."

Barnes also will strap on a pair of four-inch heels, which will be a good match for her dance partner, Knievel, who stands at 5-foot-7-inches.

"Going to prom was never really about setting a political statement or taking a stand," Barnes said. "I'm a high school senior with my prom coming up, and there shouldn't be anything questionable about me taking the person I'm dating to prom ."

Winning Over West

Barnes said she is comfortable with being gay at West High, and she doesn't expect a lot of negative reaction from classmates or teachers at prom

. Barnes was a driving force behind a gay -support, anti-discrimination group established at West High earlier this year.

"It's my senior prom , and I'm with somebody I care about and there should be no reason I can't go to the prom with her," Barnes said. "I'm really out at my school and nobody really has any reason to be harassing."

Almost 1,400 students attend West High School, and Principal Jerry Arganbright said same-sex prom dating is nothing new for the school. He said the school has no formal policies regarding same-sex prom dates, just a philosophy that the more kids who come to prom the better, regardless of gender preference.

"We have absolutely no opinion," Arganbright said. "Kids can come alone, females come together, males come together, heterosexuals come together -- we appreciate as many kids coming to our prom as possible. Frankly, it's not been a topic of conversation."

In cities across the United States, gay couples have been getting all spiffed up for the big night. Strictly gay proms have been organized in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and Detroit since 1992, to ensure comfort for gay teen promgoers. The first public school-sanctioned gay prom was held in Los Angeles in 1994 under the theme "Live to Tell."

Earlier this month in Indianapolis, 18-year-old Jacob Eiler had his tires slashed and scratches on his car as well as verbal harassment, after taking a male date to his high school prom .

Barnes said although she is not expecting any problems from fellow promgoers, her parents and friends have expressed some worry for her and her date.

"Maybe I'm just really naive, but I'm assuming there aren't going to be any problems and if there are, we will deal with them," Barnes said. "I had several girls offer to be my personal bodyguard but that stuff never really enters my mind at all."

Going to prom together is a courageous move, said Andrea Emmons, a West High senior and Barnes' close friend.

"I think it's personally courageous of them, because (they) are making a stand," Emmons said. "It will help people to realize that there are gays and lesbians out there and they're not going to go away and people have to deal with it in a mature manner like going to prom ."

Same-sex slow dance

Just like a conventional prom date, the Barnes and Knievel will go to each others' houses for pictures then off to a private dinner at the Lark Supper Club in Tiffin, driving Barnes' grandmother's car.

Knievel said she is more worried about dinner than the actual dance.

"I know all we're going to get is stares, if anything," Knievel said.

Although they will be in the minority at the dance, Barnes and Knievel said they will slow-dance just like all the other promgoers and try to have a "fun and relaxed night." The pair said they don't plan to kiss in public because they don't like public displays of affection.

"We will look beautiful and sophisticated," Barnes said.

After all the controversy and publicity has gone away and the senior prom is a memory, Barnes and Knievel will have a little less to talk about.

"It's a big night for us and it's something we've been looking forward to for a long time," Knievel said. "Most of our discussions for the past few weeks have been centered around prom ."

Last updated 5/28/97 by Jean Richter, richter@eecs.Berkeley.EDU