On UC Berkeley’s campus, you’ll find no shortage of impassioned organizers. Advocating for physical community spaces, securing medical resources, expanding inclusive restroom facilities and holding elected offices, LGBTQ+ students at UC Berkeley have represented some of the most steadfast forces of change in the face of institutional, political and cultural adversity.
Despite this track record, however, 47 percent of genderqueer/transgender and 33 percent of LGBQQO-identified students reported experiencing exclusionary behavior on campus, according to the 2015 UC Berkeley Campus Climate Survey. These statistics reaffirm what so many of us know to be true: despite our campus’s progressive reputation, in many ways, it is still difficult to be a LGBTQ+ student at UC Berkeley. When controversies regarding openly transphobic and homophobic speakers arise, when students are dead-named and misgendered in class, when they’re excluded and ostracized by predominantly cisheteronormative spaces, queer and trans students are reminded that they will always be on the outside.
LGBTQ+ advocacy often looks like survival — this school was not built with queer and trans students in mind, so our community fights day in and day out just to hold space on this campus. That fight is worth it, though. LGBTQ+ students amount to the lifeblood of the campus: They’re involved in every academic major, every cultural community and every version of the UC Berkeley experience.
LGBTQ+ leaders and organizers have successfully brought policy changes to address the material reality of the queer and trans UC Berkeley experience, but the campus climate must continue to make strides. Our campus is not doing all that it can to make LGBTQ+ students feel included, welcomed and empowered; in this respect, the importance of inclusive programming for LGBTQ+ students cannot be overstated.
One particular event provides a unique opportunity for LGBTQ+ students to uplift and affirm themselves: LGBTQ+ Prom. Prom holds a firm place in the cultural canon of quintessential high school experiences. The significance of prom is ingrained into American society: it serves as the climax in “Grease,” “Mean Girls,” “Never Been Kissed,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Twilight,” and it seems we cannot escape the significance ascribed to this one fleeting May night. On the silver screen, in glossy copies of Seventeen, prom is time and time again used to uphold stifling gender roles; for queer and trans youth, this “magical” night serves to reinforce isolating binaries, romantic expectations and dress codes. Few LGBTQ+ college students reflect on their prom experiences fondly. Instead, the memories they hold only remind them of the years spent in the margins, thanks to stereotypes like the ones at the heart of an average prom night.
Reimagining and, ultimately, reclaiming traditionally cisheteronormative experiences can foster powerful community solidarity. The LGBTQ+ experience has never been monolithic, but every queer and trans student deserves to cultivate unity through events such as LGBTQ+ Prom. Coming of age is universally awkward, smelly and painful. In addition to these typical growing pains, though, queer and trans youth continuously struggle to navigate new worlds of dating, sex, socialization and identity with threadbare frames of reference in television, movies, media and popular culture.
Prom reinforces this cisheteronormativity. Tuxedos for the boys affirm their masculinity amid a sea of feminine formality. Gowns for the girls protect their purity and virginal beauty. A crown for the king represents his imposing strength and ruling authority. A tiara for the queen conveys her poised deference. The quarterback asks the cheerleader — never the other way around — and she accepts. This one-night culmination of the teenage years can represent some of the most binary-enforcing, heteronormative parts of the high school experience.
LGBTQ+ youth who deviate from these norms find themselves on the outskirts. For many queer and trans youth, a miserable prom night can be the icing on the cake of an altogether uncomfortable high school experience fraught with discomfort and exclusion at best and targeted harassment at worst. Coming to UC Berkeley should be freeing. With parents and guardians miles away, within the vibrancy and pride of the campus’s LGBTQ+ community, we can have the ability to embrace our identities and reclaim our experiences.
Prom is meant to encapsulate the last night of revelry before entering adulthood. Just a few weeks after, we’re meant to pack our bags for college or enter the nine-to-five. It’s supposed to be about dressing to the nines, greeting your sweaty friends on the dance floor and swaying to Whitney Houston with someone special.
Prom night hasn’t always included queer and trans youth — that change can start now.
The queer and trans community at UC Berkeley deserves a chance to enjoy prom and all of its iconic moments. From the crepe and tulle decorations to the crowded photo booth; the pop-saturated playlist to the deodorant and clumsy dancing and laughter, queer and trans students at UC Berkeley have earned the right to enjoy the community and solidarity that prom night promises the average starry-eyed teenager.
LGBTQ+-conceived and LGBTQ+-centered events offer an opportunity for queer and trans students to feel safe and to feel validated on campus. With programming designed by us, for us, and with these goals in mind, we can set the course for a more inclusive and empowering UC Berkeley experience.
Romario is a campus junior, an ASUC senator-elect and the current head of staff in ASUC Senator Teddy Lake’s office, which is a sponsor of LGBTQ+ Prom.
Josie Clark is a campus junior studying political science and is the director of community and campus affairs in Lake’s office.