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Live to Tell : Teen-Agers From L.A. Schools Pack First District-Sanctioned Gay Prom

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For weeks, 18-year-old Jake Sareerak had been driving his prom date crazy with repeated phone calls about what color their matching accessories should be: soft blue, pale pink or all white? They settled for traditional black.

But that was where attention to convention came to a halt.

After all, Sareerak, a Fairfax High School senior, took his boyfriend to Friday night’s prom.

Sareerak and his date, Vincent Tam, a 20-year-old UCLA communications major, smooched, dined and danced thisclose for what organizers said was the first gay and lesbian prom ever sanctioned by a public school district in the country.

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Teen-agers from 30 Los Angeles high schools--as well as some from nearby districts--packed a pink and white balloon-filled ballroom at the Los Angeles Hilton and Towers Hotel for the prom, billed as “Live to Tell.”

The students said they were reveling in their right to a rite of passage, enjoying the freedom to dance and romance at the formal event without fear of being ridiculed, rebuked or bashed for being gay.

With the exception of same-sex couples, the prom had all the trappings of a straight prom: Shiny limos, corsages and boutonnieres, deep-house/tribal/techno music and a photographer standing by to capture couples in their glamorous outfits.

Backed by the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Board of Education, the event was co-sponsored by the district’s Eagles Center--a school for gay and lesbian students who choose not to attend traditional high schools--and the board’s Gay and Lesbian Education Commission, which champions the rights of gay youths.

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The event, which had not been widely publicized outside the schools, drew a handful of protesters from the One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism Christian Church in Long Beach.

On the sidewalk outside the hotel, the protesters waved anti-gay and anti-district posters and chanted “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” as students arrived, many making androgynous style statements and a few in full drag.

Navapol Junniephol, 17, made an unforgettable prom entrance as “Tamy,” a saucy and statuesque drag queen in a tight black gown with a bow resting on his rear and a six-foot chiffon train sweeping the floor behind him. “Tamy” was not the least bit bewildered by the demonstrators who shouted “Are you a boy or a girl?” He just waved a little black handbag at them, gathered his train and headed to the dance floor.

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The students seemed to take the protest in stride.

“This is about equal rights, not gay rights,” said Rachel Prindle, 17, sporting a Sinead O’Connor haircut. “The protesters have proved nothing. They’ve just wasted their time.

“This is my time to be myself. Nothing can spoil our night,” she said before joining a frenzied group of young men and women dancing to a 1970s Donna Summer song.

Paul Rivera, 16, a junior at Diamond Bar High School, arrived with his date, Chris Barlow, a 17-year-old pen pal he met through the Gay and Lesbian Center in Hollywood.

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Rivera, who in the past has struggled with suicidal feelings over his sexual identity, said he realized two years ago that “I can’t run away from my gayness the rest of my life.”

“It’s still tough at school,” he said. “Every time I walk down a hallway I’m always shoved or somebody gives me a bad look or calls me ‘faggot’ and ‘queer.’ By the end of the day I feel emotionally and physically tired.”

But on this night, Rivera did not have a worry in the world.

“I always dreamed of going to a prom with a guy. I just didn’t know how I would do it. I’m ecstatic about it,” he said.

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For K.C. Barrow, 18, an Eagles student, the prom served as a blind date arranged by a social worker. Barrow and his date, William Ballantine, 17, a student at St. Monica’s Catholic High School in Santa Monica, met just hours before the party.

“We’re both pretty nervous,” Barrow said. But soon the jitters faded. By the second hour, the two were striking poses for prom photos under a balloon arch, Barrow’s cheek pressed against Ballantine’s. By the third hour, the two were inseparable as they danced nonstop into the night.

Anna-Lisa Parra, 17, a senior at Buena Vista High School in Corona, attended with Cindy Rosales, 17, a senior at South Gate.

The two lesbian friends--both dressed in menswear, including pin-stripe trousers, oversize shirts, suspenders and ties--have known each other for four years and are openly gay at their schools. They also are members of Project 10, a districtwide gay and lesbian counseling program that gets its name from the estimate that 10% of the nation’s population is gay.

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“This prom is showing that the gay rights movement is taking a big step forward,” Rosales said. Two weeks ago she attended South Gate’s senior prom with her best male friend, who is straight and knows she is a lesbian.

At that event, she was voted the prom princess and accepted the crown in a creme-colored, tight-waisted, tea-length gown. “When I sat down it was very uncomfortable,” said Rosales, adding that she was more comfortable in the clothes she chose for Friday’s prom.

“I’m outspoken in an academic way,” said Rosales, who is vice president of her senior class and is involved in youth, feminist, lesbian and Latino issues at school and in her community.

“I believe that I have my rights as a lesbian. I don’t promote my gayness but I take pride in it.”

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Her date, Parra, said that last year she attended South Gate’s junior-senior prom with a girlfriend but felt unwelcome there.

“We danced and took our pictures together, but we could feel the bad vibes. We left. That, obviously, is not happening here tonight,” she said, soon after telegrams from school board member Jeff Horton and Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, openly gay politicians, were read to the group.

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Kathy Gill, the Gay and Lesbian Education Commission’s director, joined other organizers in expressing gratitude to several gay and lesbian groups and well-wishers for donating $6,000 to help underwrite the prom. Student participants paid $15 apiece; no public funds were spent.

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Virginia Uribe, Project 10 founder and a science teacher at Fairfax High School, said: “This kind of affirmation is imperative for gay and lesbian youth because a lot of our kids are faced with life-and-death situations. The prom says to them: ‘You have dignity and we respect you and you’re not lesser in anyone’s mind.’ ”

The prom-goers echoed those sentiments.

“This is our night to celebrate and to dance in a classy ballroom with our friends and our lovers,” said Christine Soto, who made a speech welcoming her peers to the prom.

Like other prom-goers, Soto, a 16-year-old Eagles Center student--her hair fashionably slicked back, her outfit a mix of brocade vest, baggy pants and zoot-suit pocket chain--saved up for the prom. She paid a friend $100 to drive her and her date to the prom and later to Santa Monica Beach where the two young women watched the sunrise.

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“Tonight is a night we can claim as ours,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion as shouts of “Go on, girl!” came from the audience. “Tonight is a night where we don’t have to worry about nobody telling us that we don’t fit in. After tonight we will live to tell about our struggle to achieve equality and human rights.”


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