The Detroit News 6/6/97
615 W. Lafayette,Detroit,MI,48226
A night to remember: Two gays find the prom can be a dream - not the nightmare it was in 1980
Heather Stone / The Detroit News
Steve and Justin ride in the obligatory silver limousine that, as Steve notes, is longer than most airplanes.
By Michael H. Hodges / The Detroit News
Rushing to pull themselves together before the limo arrives at 6:30, Justin Millen, 17, and his date, Steve Zafft, hardly have time to consider the leap they're about to make. Along with one other couple, the two presently tumbling into tuxedoes might well be the first gay sweethearts to ever attend a Michigan high school prom.
But being first isn't uppermost in Justin's mind at the moment -- getting his cuff links to work is.
Justin says he's pretty sure nobody will give them "any crap" at tonight's prom for graduating seniors at Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School. Still, there's an edge of bravado to his voice, and he and Steve are no strangers to trouble. There was that time at the bowling alley when someone threw "faggots!" at them as they were leaving. But they handled it. Justin turned around, green eyes flashing, and dismissed the fellow with a snap of his fingers.
"Hopefully we'll make an impression at the prom," Justin says puckishly. "Maybe they'll stare."
A couple feet away, Steve, 23, is fiddling with the metal snaps that fasten his black-and-silver paisley vest behind his back. He's not making much progress. "This," he says in exasperation, "is why I'm not a waiter."
While most of his classmates were worrying about the tuxes and dresses they'd wear to the Cumberland High School prom, Rhode Islander Aaron Fricke had a far bigger concern. Even if he got a date, would they be allowed inside? It's not like gay kids went to a prom together every day. Still, it was 1980. Maybe it was time somebody stood up.
I'm taking a boy to the prom, Aaron finally told his parents, who were shocked but supportive. Not at my school, came the principal's retort. To make matters worse, if Aaron pressed the issue, the principal vowed he'd cancel the whole affair.
That's when things really started to get ugly.
Mary Dascola has a bad habit of calling Justin "cute." She knows this has to stop. Justin may have been her little boy once, but he's almost 18, and Phil, her husband and Justin's stepdad, has had words with her on the subject. She's trying hard to reform. So when Justin and Steve, in matching black tuxes and white-rose boutonnieres, finally step into the living room, you can almost hear the gears going beneath her red hair.
"Oh, you look so -- so handsome!" she says, turning triumphantly toward the kitchen where Phil is pulling chicken breasts from the broiler. "Hear that, Phil?"
After the obligatory round of photographs -- first Steve and Justin with their arms around each other, then a beaming Mary and Justin -- it's off to the silver limousine that, as Steve notes, is longer than most airplanes.
As excited as Justin is, chances are this prom means more to Mary than to her son. It stands as another sign, and there have been a number this year, that gay or not, her only child isn't condemned to the life of an outcast. That he can be with his friends at tonight's rite of passage and "have it be so ordinary," Mary says, shaking her head and putting a hand to her breast. "That means so much."
How big a trend gay couples attending their school proms might be is hard to pin down, but there's no doubt it's growing. "A couple years ago, it was TV movie-of-the-week material," says Elise Harris, news editor at Out Magazine in New York City. "But now it's a lot more normal."
Indeed, for Kevin Jennings, who heads the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Teachers Network, it's that very "normality" that illustrates the gulf separating 1980 -- the first time the issue ever made national news -- from the May 22 prom at hand. Take a look at Aaron's memoir, Reflections of a Rock Lobster (Alyson Publications), and it's clear he attended his prom for mostly symbolic reasons, at a time when the culture was far more hostile to homosexuals. He must have known in advance, Jennings argues, that there was no way he'd have an ordinary prom experience. Justin, by contrast, represents the sea change taking place today, Jennings says, among gay adolescents who increasingly believe "that maybe they can have a normal adolescence."
It's a short drive from the normalcy of the Dascola household to the real world, where Justin and Steve have dinner reservations at the Gandy Dancer. Whether kids at the dance will gawk at them remains to be seen. But almost too startled to stare are a half-dozen elderly diners just exiting the restaurant, who stumble upon Justin and Steve sharing a sunset kiss right in front of the door.
Equally dumbstruck is a family -- mom, dad and small son -- sitting in the booth immediately behind Justin and Steve. The parents' eyes grow wide as they figure out what's going on. Not that there's any hanky-panky -- the most the guys do is occasionally touch hands across the table. Nonetheless, that look of suppressed alarm stays on their neighbors' faces from hors d'oeuvre to dessert.
But there's unexpected kindness from strangers as well. The young men's meal -- filet mignon and "your cheapest Chardonnay" for Steve, shrimp fettuccine Alfredo for Justin -- ends with a surprise when their waiter, Charlie Belcher, brings them a huge piece of unordered cake, complete with candle on top. "Congratulations on your prom," he says with a smile.
Talk of the town
Everyone was talking about Aaron taking his boyfriend to the prom. Newspapers trumpeted the news, and he could see it in kids' eyes when they passed him in the hall. Talk was bad enough. But then there was the beating he took at school. Over the years, Aaron had put up with a lot of verbal abuse. But he had never had to get stitches before.
Still, he didn't cave in. And eventually a few straight classmates even congratulated him. Just days before the prom, a federal judge ruled that the First Amendment couldn't be clearer: The school had to let Aaron and his date in. Time to party at the prom! Even so, when Aaron and Paul pulled up to the Pleasant Valley Country Club, they were met by a distinctly unfestive entourage -- half a dozen policemen hired to escort them in and keep order. Justin finished his schoolwork a semester early this January, and now works two jobs. As a result, he doesn't get to many school functions, which is one of the main reasons he wants to go to tonight's prom. Then there's the fact that he's too young for gay bars. So this is a rare chance for him and Steve to go dancing. But pressed a little harder, he admits -- flashing his lightning grin -- that a big part of going is to advance the cause of what he calls gay visibility.
If straight people see "we're not causing a ruckus," he says, then maybe they'll get more comfortable with homosexuals. All the same, it annoys him to have to prove that gay people are "normal" -- almost as much as when people ask "which one of us is going to wear the dress." He rolls his eyes.
Justin hasn't always been this upbeat. Mary can tell you about the time in 10th grade when Justin -- ordinarily so easy to get along with that, in his step-father's words, "it was scary" -- suddenly went angry, dark and remote.
Two years ago, a drawn and terrified Justin left a letter at the kitchen table telling his mom and step-dad what he'd never said out loud. And awful as the news might sound to most parents, the letter was in ways a relief for Mary and Phil. Sure, homosexuality was foreign to them. But the letter gave them a chance to deal with it, and "get our kid back." So they dealt. Mary took time off from work that afternoon so she could be home when Justin walked in the door; she reassured the 15-year-old that they were on his side, no matter what.
"It's been," Phil says of the past several years, "a great learning experience."
Which isn't to say there haven't been concerns, not least of which was Steve's age when they first met him. Mary admits she's been keeping an eye on them. But with time, she and Phil have realized they like Steve, and they have concluded that he neither manipulates Justin nor "plays mind games" with him.
But then, Justin is by no stretch of the imagination a weakling. He came out to all his friends over the past couple of years, and recently founded Michigan's first gay high-school group, Pioneer's Gay/Straight Alliance. But nothing he'd ever done compared with the speech he gave during the school's Cultural Awareness Week in November.
Up at the microphone before 2,000 students, Justin spoke for about three minutes on tolerance, diversity and what it's like being gay. When he finished, he looked up, heart rocking inside his chest. The audience sat frozen, then rose as one to give him a standing ovation.
Stunned, Justin stumbled off the stage and tried to make his way out to the hall. But he couldn't get there. Too many people -- kids he knew and kids he'd never met -- were clapping him on the back, pumping his hand, saying that what he'd just done really took guts.
Justin and Steve rush from the Gandy Dancer at 9:25. The rented limo turns into a pumpkin at 9:30, so they rocket toward the Michigan Union, where the prom is being held. When they get there minutes later, it's clear they've arrived well before the crowd. They join the small line waiting for formal prom photos to be taken. There's not much chitchat. And for the first time today, Justin looks nervous.
The music started up, and people crowded the dance floor. All he'd wanted was for him and Paul to be "just one more happy couple," Aaron would write a year later in "Reflections." But fate had other plans.
When Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight" came on and the two finally got a chance to slow dance, Aaron pressed his head against Paul's shoulder and closed his eyes tight. When he opened them, nobody else was dancing.
His classmates stood around them in a circle, eyes wide, mouths dropped.
When Justin and Steve make their way into the darkened ballroom festooned in red, black and silver balloons, Parker Pennington IV jumps up to greet them and hug Justin. Pennington, one of two openly gay teachers present with a date, graduated from Pioneer back in the '70s. Knowing even then that he was gay, he didn't attend his own senior prom. Tonight he's exultant. "They owed me this one!" he says.
Some kids are a little surprised by the gay couples -- there's also another student pair -- who congregate at the same table between dances, but mostly people seem oblivious. Except when a couple of guys catch Steve kissing Justin.
The guys are aghast. "Did you see that? Did you see that?"
Overhearing them, Gordon Simonett, who's known Justin since ninth grade, points out that it's Justin and his date. Didn't they know he'd be here?
The excitement drains from their faces. "Oh," they say, suddenly matter-of-fact. "That's Justin? OK."
Pioneer High School Principal Bob Galardi, for one, thinks single-sex couples are unlikely to be much of a shock again at Pioneer. The students, he says, are just not that bothered on the issue; they seemed to have been waiting for the adults to catch up. This, he says, just happened to be the year that became obvious.
Happily ever after
Aaron's prom ended on an up note with a party at a friend's house. But later his principal tells him that he'd handle any future requests "from homosexuals" the exact same way, never mind what the federal court said.
Still, when several seniors spray-painted "Faggot City" on the school, the principal barred them from the upcoming graduation ceremonies.
On the big day, when Aaron's name was called, it was greeted with boos and catcalls -- but cheers as well. Diploma in hand, Aaron bowed to salute his senior class.
A few minutes before 1 a.m., Justin and Steve look elated but bushed as they make their way out of the ballroom, doing the ritual "Good night" and "See you at graduation" thing with friends as they go.
By and large, they agree, the dance was a hoot, even if the music was too loud and too old. Emerging onto the sidewalk in front of the Michigan Union, where fleets of limousines await their charges, the two push their way politely through cloud banks of evening gowns and tuxedoes, and vanish into the crowd.
Just one more happy couple.
Last updated 6/30/97 by Jean Richter, richter@eecs.Berkeley.EDU