Prom Then and Now

3 years ago

We were on our way to Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco on Sunset Boulevard when Denise spun her Triumph Spitfire around and announced we were crashing the prom.

Image: Ben Sutherland
“What prom?” I asked.

We weren’t seniors yet and this was not our prom, though we wouldn’t have gone to our prom the next year anyway. By our senior year, we didn’t go to school at all but were living in the Hollywood apartment of a roadie while he was on tour with the band Rufus, in a building that was home to hookers and a pimp named Sonny. There was an endless supply of drugs, booze and men who wanted to sleep with teenagers, especially two together. Sonny never gave us money.

But the year we crashed the prom, we were staying anywhere we could — a musician’s hotel room or an all-night party or a concert promoter’s house. When we had nowhere else to go, we went home.

We couldn’t go home together because we were not allowed at one another’s house. Not since her sister caught us in bed and told their parents, nor when my mother found a sexually graphic love note from Denise on my dresser. Our parents wanted us out of their homes: We were not the girls they had hoped for, but how can you violate and neglect a child and then ask why she is not class president?

I cared more about school than Denise did and we went to school when we could. At least part of the reason she didn’t care was that the year before, at 15, she ran away to NYC for six months, had her braces removed and started a heroin addiction that ended at 16 — after I stood on a toilet seat, looked over the stall at Canters 24-hour deli on Fairfax and found her shooting up. But Denise cared about me and I wanted to be taken care of and I relied on her: she had the car; she got drugs for me; she knew where we were spending the night; she was in charge.

That semester, before we crashed the prom, Miss Shirley Woo, the vice principal, caught Denise and I making out in the girl’s bathroom. We followed her to her office laughing and pushing one another, impervious to punishment. In her office she leaned on the desk with arms folded like Michael Constantine in “Room 222” and said, “I know you’re lesbians and that’s alright.” She told us to be careful. This was Los Angeles in the early '70s in a liberal school. We could barely wait to leave her office before bursting into laughter. “Lesbians!” That’s what women with purple slogan T-shirts, no bras, frizzy hair and fists in the air were, not us.

When Denise turned her car around and headed to the prom, we were wearing not what you’d wear to a prom. I was in silver hot pants, a tube top and wedgies with a studded dog collar around my neck and silver bracelets up my arms. Denise had on a leather jacket, tight pants, cowboy boots and a studded leather bracelet.

Before we walked into the prom holding hands, we made sure we were thoroughly trashed on drugs and alcohol. A band from school was playing. I could feel kids staring at us as we made our way to the center of the dance floor and slow-danced liked we belonged there. For a moment, I felt like we did. Then there was a hand on my shoulder and a teacher asked us to leave — well, it wasn’t that polite. We were dragged out by the arm, past kids taunting us with “dyke” and “lezzie.” At the door I flipped everyone off.

When my daughter, Rae, was wondering what to do about her prom in 2005, I told her the shortened version of that story: “Denise and I went to the prom together and got thrown out.” Denise is still my friend and Rae knows her as an upstanding person, a successful realtor in San Diego. Even if that’s only a fraction of the story of Denise and me, the relevant part is that two girls or two guys could not go to a prom as a couple in the 1970s, and in many places in the U.S. that’s still the case.

Rae was the head of the GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) at her high school and the only GSA kids who had dates for the dance were the straight ones. The school policy was kids had to go in couples so the gay kids went together as friends and she went with a guy she worked with.

Tyler, her date, was a young man who was born female — a transgender man, or a “transman.” They were just friends but Rae is attracted to a variety of genders, meaning different expressions of masculinity, femininity or androgyny on male or female people. I, on the other hand, feel conservative — I’ve only ever been attracted to masculinity whether on a female or male.

Rae and I just talked about the prom the other day and she told me that she had a great time. She felt like she belonged and that she had a normal teenage experience. There was no need for anyone to crash it or sneak in and the days of having to be so trashed in order to do something as normal as go to a prom, knowing you’d be thrown out because you were with someone of the same sex, are thankfully becoming more scarce.

Originally published on Purple Clover

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