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This is Not Your Mother’s Prom

by Staff

High school prom season is in full swing. And while the time-worn traditions associated with this rite of passage—like dressing up and dancing—have remained relatively intact for decades, there’s one tradition that students have begun to tweak in recent years: prom court.

Historically, prom courts refer to honorary titles of “king and queen” bestowed on two (presumably heterosexual) students, one male and one female. But that’s not always the case anymore. Around the country, prom court representatives increasingly include students whose sexual orientation and/or gender identity differ from their peers’.

Students driving change

Whether via deliberate initiatives or spontaneous decisions, the votes in favor of creating more-inclusive prom courts are coming from students themselves, regardless or in spite of the broader community’s political leanings.

That was the case at Atlantic Coast High School, whose Gender and Sexuality Alliance last year spearheaded an effort to add a third representative to the prom court. The newly created title of “sovereign” is open to students who identify as non-binary, and the tradition will continue with this year’s prom.

“We’ve always allowed students to run for king or queen regardless of their assigned sex from birth,” said Joseph Rawlins, teacher and faculty sponsor for Atlantic Coast High School’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA). “But the kids wanted to make it so that everyone felt represented by our prom courts.”

Although Atlantic Coast High is, to Rawlins’ knowledge, the only high school in the Duval Public School District to adopt the sovereign title, other Florida high schools’ prom courts in recent years also have become more inclusive.

Mike Randolph, principal of Leesburg High School in Lake County, Fla., recalled that a few years ago, a student at his school who was undergoing a gender transition from female to male won the title prom king.

“He was part of our family,” Randolph said. “There wasn’t much [fanfare] there. It was completely student-driven.”

In the spring of 2021, a similarly spontaneous decision by students at Kings High School in Kings Mill, Ohio, led to the unprecedented crowning there of two females to its prom court. The students, longtime friends, began dating in high school. Their classmates elected them to the prom court.

Prom courts’ inclusivity sometimes runs counter to attitudes, laws in broader communities

While there is no conclusive data available on the number of high schools or districts that have recently created a more-inclusive prom court, examples of the practice span the country and include Maryland, Virginia, Mississippi, Georgia, and other states. But despite growing acceptance of the practice within school communities, not everyone approves.

Some parents in Kings Mill, identified as a small town that tends to learn right in elections by Data USA, voiced their disapproval of the prom court decision in subsequent board meetings and Facebook posts, with some commenting that the teen couple “needs Jesus,” according to an NBC news report.

Some politicians are trying to ban any mention of sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms. The Florida House this March voted to extend a key component of House Bill (HB) 1557, Parental Rights in Education, dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.The original bill, signed into law in March of 2022, prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity through 3rd grade. This latest proposed bill would stretch the ban through 8th grade. This March, the administration of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed extending this prohibition to all grades.The State Board of Education is scheduled to review it on April 19.

Student-led organizations create safe space

While some state legislators aim to restrict students from learning about sexual orientation and gender identity, school-based organizations like Gender and Sexuality Alliances, which helped drive the change in Duval County, seek to promote more-inclusive atmospheres, which health experts say is beneficial to all teens. In the 2022–2023 school year, an estimated 1,700 schools in the United States. operated GSAs, according to the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network.

GSAs provide not only a safe space for LGBTQ+ students; they can also change the culture of an entire school, explained Joseph Rand, interim director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Minnesota Extension. “Because GSAs exist to give these kids the space to advocate for each other and the strategies to get through the bullying and discrimination they face, that trickles over,” Rand said. “When kids are happier because they feel like they can be who they are, that has an impact on the broader school community.”

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