Coronado, CA–On a Friday night in Coronado, a group of teenagers danced the night away in keeping with the theme “Under a Starry Sky” as they celebrated the end of the school year.
The centerpieces were adorned with beautiful arrays of flowers flanked by pictures of young leaders to provide inspiration. But these were no ordinary leaders; They were Young Queer Leaders. And this was no ordinary prom.
This was the Rainbow Soiree, an event hosted by Rainbow Spaces, a San Diego-based organization that promotes the inclusivity and well-being of LGBTQ+ youth.
“These teenagers came from schools from all over the county, and many did not even know each other before the event,” Nadia Kean-Ayub, executive director of Rainbow Spaces, said. “This presented a great opportunity for them to connect with teens experiencing the same desire to take part in a major teenage milestone in a safe space.”
The idea for the Rainbow Soiree originated with the youth themselves. They were asked that if they could go into one space and not be judged, what would it be. They overwhelmingly chose a prom.
Rainbow Spaces is committed to making sure San Diego’s LGBTQ+ youth have a fair chance at healthy and safe adolescence. This is no easy feat, given that they are more likely to experience traumatic events than heterosexual, or straight, youth, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance results. In California in 2019, 29% of gay, lesbian or bisexual students reported they were bullied on school property compared to 23% of heterosexual students, and 26% experienced sexual violence compared to 18% of heterosexual students.
What’s worse, one out of two gay, lesbian or bisexual youth has seriously considered attempting suicide, while one out of four has actually attempted it.
For youth who belong to a community of color, it is even worse. They face significant barriers to accessible and quality mental health support. Being a member of a marginalized population who has long experienced rejection, discrimination, and prejudice combined with an often-misunderstood natural expression of who they are as a person brings stigmatization that even adults struggle with. Along with depression, suicidal ideation, feelings of shame or worthlessness, panic, and anxiety, some youth do not have either the family, peer, or school support they need to thrive.
Having an event that normalizes the teenage experience for queer youth was vital to the organization. Proms often reinforce heterosexual gender stereotypes, and even among their peers, there is still homophobia. This can create a lot of stress and anxiety, especially for those who are not out yet, even in determining what to wear that doesn’t invite scrutiny or criticism.
The community indeed came out in support of these teens, including from projects like Partnerships 4 Success, who work alongside residents of the South Bay and Border Region for healthy and safe communities. From donations of food, decorations, a photo booth, the DJ, and even the rental space at the Coronado Community Center, the teens were treated to an evening of dancing, photo-booth pictures, wonderful food, and high school memories that don’t involve anxiety or fear.
“We are very lucky to have an active LGBTQ community in San Diego,” Kean-Ayub said. “We were able to get the word out about the dance through San Diego Pride and the Gay Student Alliance (GSA) in South Bay schools. The word even reached Temecula.”
LGBTQ+ youth, particularly those from under-resourced communities, are really the ones most in need of support, according to Kean-Ayub. Yet there is little engagement by organizations that have the resources that can have a positive impact on this population.
When asked what communities can do to promote LGBTQ+ youth, it was easy enough to answer for Rainbow Soiree attendee Dakota Fleming: “Go to the youth at schools.” Engaging with students through the GSA, for instance, helps bring their community out into the open with a recognizable presence. Even allies – those who are not queer but are in full support of the LGBTQ+ community – can make a difference.
“We want everyone – parents, teachers, peers, school administration and civic leaders – to understand that these teens are vulnerable, and no less deserving of a carefree youth,” according to Kean-Ayub. “They are here and their struggles aren’t going to go away unless our society is open to the idea of acceptance and offers them resources.”