Uniting Pride of Champaign County began hosting Queer Prom in 2018, as a way for LGBTQ+ teens to have a safe environment to celebrate this high school milestone. In a time where increased visibility and acceptance of different gender identities and expressions and forms of sexuality has resulted in a backlash of anti-LGBTQ and more specifically anti-trans bills and school board decisions across the country, events like these and organziations such as Uniting Pride are more important than ever. While Champaign-Urbana and Illinois are not Florida or Texas, queer kids here are not immune to bullying and harassment

I spoke with Montgomery Tufts, Operations Coordinator for Uniting Pride, about this year's Queer Prom and other important programming available for teens in our area.

Smile Politely: While we’re living in this time where it feels like there is more acceptance for various gender identities and sexual orientations, there are also harmful policies and laws being put into place all over the country. What have you and others at Uniting Pride seen and heard from teens recently in light of the current climate?

Montgomery Tufts: As you referenced, 2021 was the worst year in history for anti-trans legislation. Even though we’re very lucky in Illinois that it hasn’t affected us yet  although bills have been proposed they’ve just been rejected — seeing that circulating in the media is a really affecting thing, especially for young people. Seeing people’s existences being made into a topic of debate…that’s an extremely disheartening thing to see. A big part of what we try to do at Uniting Pride is build community and try to regain that confidence through community. With the pandemic we had to move all our programming online to make sure people were kept safe. So we do have online programming for teens which is great, but it’s not the same. We’re really excited for Queer Prom to be able to bring the community back together in a physical space, and give these kids a chance to interact with each other in a way that’s safe, where they’re not going to be bullied — which is a thing that we do see a lot of in schools in our area.

SP: Why is Queer Prom such an important event for you to be doing in our community?

Tufts: For a lot of kids  not just LGBTQ+ kids — is a really important memory that is made in high school. It’s a really special thing. Some queer kids don’t have the chance to make that memory, either because they don’t feel safe going with their partner, or because they’re not able to dress the way that they’d like to, or because they get bullied at school and they don’t want to be at place where they’re just going to be bullied more. We want this event to be fun and wonderful and colorful and bright and happy for these kids who might not have the chance to experience that kind of joy at a regular school event.

SP: If a kid is new to this event, what can they expect?

Tufts: We have a lot of wonderful things planned. The music will be provided by DJ Silkee, so that will be a lot of fun. We’ll have music and lights in the ballroom of the YMCA, and we’ll also have the gallery space so if students want to just step aside and chat and relax away from the music they’ll have a chance to do that. There are going to be crafts; we have a make your own crown craft so everyone can be prom royalty. The park district is very kindly providing some cornhole set ups. We’ll also have free wardrobe, makeup, hairdressing, and face painting services for anyone who isn’t able to get dressed up at home, or wants to get more dressed up at the event itself. The theme is “Iconic” and students are encouraged to dress up in honor of their favorite queer icon. To prevent the spread of COVID and help make the event safer for immunocompromised folks, masks will be required. We also won’t be serving food during the event, although we will be sending guests home with goody bags that will include snacks and a drink. There’s a lot to look forward to!

SP: So if someone wants to take advantage of those free services, they just show up that night and can be transformed?

Tufts: Yep! The music will start at 6:30, but doors will open at 6 to give people time if they want to show up early and get ready with all of those different services ahead of time, so by the time the music and dancing starts they’re ready to go.

SP: Beyond this annual event, what are some other ways teens can get connected with your programming?

Tufts: Our teen support group is called Talk It Up, and teens can reach out to us at any time to find out more information by emailing [email protected]. Right now this is operating mainly through a Discord server, but as plague things get better we’ll be moving back to in person programming. In addition, we do our best even with events not specifically for teens — events like Pride Fest and Pride Month programming — to include things that appeal to a broad variety of age ranges. There should always be something that we’re doing that is fun for teens too. 

SP: How can people in the community support specifically Queer Prom, or any other things that the organization is doing throughout the year?

Tufts: We are a nonprofit, so donations make all the difference, and also volunteers. We’re relying on volunteer chaperones at this event…we’ll have somewhere in the realm of 20-25 people there at any given time to make sure the whole event is covered and everyone is staying safe. People can keep up to date with what we’re doing on our social media. Sometimes when we need something last minute for an event, we’ll put out a call to the community, which we’ve done a couple of times now for Queer Prom.  

SP: Anything else people need to know?

Tufts: Another program that we have is called Up and Away… it’s a free binder program. This is available for anyone who isn’t able to afford or safely purchase a binder on their own, which can include teenagers. Binders can be a really important piece of affirming clothing, which makes people feel safer and more confident in themselves. We want to do our best to make sure there’s no obstacle for people in our community getting their hands on one. 

Queer Prom is at the University YMCA from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Doors open at 6. Attendees are encouraged to RSVP ahead of time. To learn more about Uniting Pride, the resources they offer, and how to support their work, check out their website.

Top photo from Uniting Pride Facebook page.