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A prom bomb thrower in green taffeta

Op-Ed

The prom survives, and so does freedom of choice.

May 29, 2012|By Shawnda Westly
  • Avalon High School students dance during the prom ball, on Santa Catalina Island. Twenty-five years ago, as a junior at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, Shawnda Westly petitioned her school administration to change the policy of only selling prom tickets to couples.
Avalon High School students dance during the prom ball, on Santa Catalina… (Los Angeles Times )

For most girls, prom is a rite of passage: the perfect dress, the prettiest corsage and the handsome date; it's an experience they remember their entire lives.

Twenty-five years ago, as a junior at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, my choice to go to the prom without a traditional date made the whole experience memorable for an entirely different set of reasons. It made me suddenly an outcast and a radical, a bomb thrower in a green taffeta dress.

Three different boys asked me to the prom, but at the time, I didn't have a steady boyfriend. So I chose not to waste the night on what would have been essentially a first date. Instead, I decided to go in a group with two of my girlfriends.

When I tried to buy prom tickets, I learned the school was only selling tickets to couples, one boy and one girl. The activities director said three unattached girls could cause "jealousies" on the dance floor and fights would break out.

At the time, I was an honors student, varsity tennis player and a fairly reserved, non-rebellious young woman. When the school administration denied us tickets just because we didn't have male dates, it didn't seem right. Why should I be kept from the junior-senior prom because I didn't have a male escort? The policy made no sense, so I petitioned the school administration to change it.

I never thought my request would land me on the front page of local papers, or on "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers." I also never expected this very newspaper to editorialize in support of my stance.

Nor did I expect the backlash. It was a stunning lesson for a 16-year-old: If you step even slightly out of line with tradition and acceptable norms, you will be punished. I saw firsthand that society doesn't just promote its traditions; it does all it can to enforce them. The message from most students and parents was to do it their way or you can't do it at all.

At school, banners went up vilifying the "Stag Prom." Walking through the halls, I was called "dyke" and "bitch." Our phone rang off the hook with complaints. I received threatening letters, including a pornographic collage of pictures with cutout letters conveying a violent and salacious message I never even showed my parents.

My friends backed out. But two others, Dana Sonksen and Steve Silverman, stepped up to join me.

The constant bullying made me scared to go to school. Would a cheerleader yell profanities at me? Would another football player let me know he planned to slam dance into me? I kept my mouth shut, and I didn't pick fights. Finally, the school administration decided to change the policy.

Then the big day arrived, and something happened I never saw coming. A lesbian couple, both dressed in tuxedos, obviously romantically involved, walked into the dance. Everyone, even my friends and I, stared. One thing was for sure: The heat was off me. For breaking a bigger barrier, I assume the two of them endured enough hatred and bullying to make my troubles seem like a cakewalk.

In a sense, what my enemies feared most came to pass: When you challenge convention, there's a ripple effect. "Stag Prom" turned into "Gay Prom." One freedom led to another. But I'm proud to say that Edison never looked back. The school survives, the prom survives, Huntington Beach survives — and so does freedom of choice.

Not every school is Edison, though. Just a few weeks ago, in Philadelphia, Amanda Dougherty, 17, was told she couldn't attend her prom at Archbishop John Carroll High School because her date suddenly had to back out. The archdiocese said in a statement that the school held other dances during the year that didn't require dates but that prom was a "special social occasion." According to Fox News, Dougherty found another date.

The archdiocese was right, of course: Prom is a special occasion; it was for me 25 years ago. And like so many things in life, it's one we all should have the right — with an opposite-sex date, same-sex date or no date at all — to experience and remember.

Shawnda Westly is the executive director of the California Democratic Party.

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