When Rebekah Patenaude was in high school, she went to prom with a male date. Not because she wanted to – she would have preferred not to have a date at all – but because it was important to her friend.
“It was really awkward,” recalls Patenaude, 24, who started identifying as queer at 21. “I didn’t understand why, but now it’s clear to me… Like every other high school kid, you try to fit in. But now, I’m like, I don’t want to fit in. Fitting in is boring. I want to be myself.”
Patenaude is one of many queer women, women and gender non-conforming people in Hamilton who are getting ready for a prom.
Scheduled for May 22 at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Queer Prom Fruit Salad promises to be the magical night of glitz and camaraderie that many queer people didn’t get to experience the first time around. It’s a chance to experience the ball a bit later in life as themselves, but they’ve come to define that.
“I think this one will be different because…these are people from the [queer] community,” says Patenaude, who plans to go alone, wearing a long rainbow skirt.
“You’re not the minority, you’re the majority. It’s a weird space. You can be loud, you can be proud. You can wear rainbows.”
The event is the latest in the Fruit Salad series, which launched last year with the goal of building community between queer women and gender non-conforming people and has since hosted events in Guelph and Toronto.
Hamilton-based organizer Sarah Barnhart says the events – including the upcoming prom night – also aim to provide opportunities for joy for people who may feel marginalized in other spaces.
“I think there are a lot of people… who weren’t allowed to go. [to prom] like who they were, or allowed to go with their partners,” Barnhart says. “So people either didn’t go, or they went and pretended to be someone else, or they were really uncomfortable being there, and I think it’s important to have a ‘redo.’
“You can simply reset the memory in your mind and have the experience you really want to have as your truest, most magical version of yourself.”
Queer Prom will mimic the traditional version of the event in some ways: with fancy clothes, dancing, a DJ and a photo booth. There are bodices and boutonnieres available for pre-order. Tickets for the event are $80.59 including fees, but are also being sold on a sliding scale for those who can’t afford them, a move in line with Fruit Salad’s ongoing efforts to ensure that no one who wishes participate is excluded.
“One of the most important things, especially for this, is that people can attend no matter what,” Barnhart says.
Queer Prom will also be fully accessible — something central to Patenaude’s participation, as she uses a wheelchair.
She says it’s validating to have “a space that is fully queer and fully accessible and barrier-free…I can be myself and I don’t have to worry about ‘What is that person thinking in his head? Are they homophobic, are they transphobic, are they ableist? “In Fruit Salad, I can be in space and dance and…let go.”
Mo Swayze, 23, skipped her prom at Cathedral High School in downtown Hamilton. He cites social anxiety and depression, issues that have eased somewhat since he began to accept himself and his identity, which is trans male.
“I had a lot of guilt, or I just didn’t know if I was right or wrong because of the church’s position,” he said. “It was hard for me trying to be who I was, or exploring that there were other options than being straight. I didn’t know if that was okay for me or a possibility. for me. I was tired of being confused or trying to be someone I wasn’t.”
Swayze, a social work student, was nervous when he bought the tickets, but now feels excited. He sees the event as a chance to make inroads with the local queer community.
“I wanted to be part of the community, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know anyone who was gay. I’ve been kind of on the outside looking the whole time.”
Kelly Tayler also didn’t go to prom as a teenager. She was homeschooled at the time, so she didn’t have the option. She says she’s shopped around for a few outfit options, but is leaning on a 90s-style green dress that suits Kelly, 17,’s style.
She says everything she knows about prom comes from TV and movies.
“It was such a pivotal experience that I felt like I missed out on it,” she says, while noting that being older might actually help her appreciate it better.
“I don’t think I would have liked it back then. I would have been a jittery bundle of teenage hormones.”