I was tugging nervously on my sparkly silver dress, standing at the building’s entrance. Loud music reverberated through the brick walls. Through a foggy window, I could make out the shapes of people dancing. Before I could let the nerves get the best of me, the door opened and a coordinator ushered me in.
There were a total of seven of us teens there. The Prom took place in a room that was no bigger than a small apartment. A live band took up half the dance floor, playing oldies and rock-and-roll versions of pop songs. It didn’t look like a typical High School Prom, and that’s because it wasn’t.
This Prom was a Pride Prom. Nobody here cared who was dancing with who. Nobody here batted an eye if a girl wore a suit, or if one of my guy friends wore a dress. This small, rectangular room was one of the only safe havens in Southwest Michigans for teens like me to be themselves.
I’d grown up in a community that wasn’t accepting of those that were different. I remember sitting in on sermons about the sins of same-sex marriage. I remember the way some of my more religious friends would talk about those that liked the same gender. And I remember taking part in those conversations myself, masking my own personality by claiming same-sex relationships were a sin as well.
At some point in life, my view began to shift. I became a pioneer, advocating for same-sex marriage every moment I’d get. I’d begin by saying “I’m not gay, but…” as I launched into debate after debate arguing the right for two people of the same sex to marry in the United States. Most of my friends at that time knew me as just an outspoken ally. In reality, I identified as bisexual.
I’d found the OutCenter after a google search for LGBTQIA+ teen groups in my area. I needed a sense of community, I remember thinking. I needed someone to look up to. I needed someone to show me that people like us exist outside the realm of social media, and that there are adults who identify as LGBTQIA+ living normal lives.
My best friend, who was in the closet with me, and I felt so alone in a community where we weren’t accepted. Most of all, we desperately wanted to meet other teens like us.
I almost didn’t go to that first meeting. I sat in the car with my best friend, staring at the large windows of the Phoenix Cafe where we were meeting for what felt like forever. In the end, curiosity overpowered my nerves.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that I was in a safe space. That my friend and I didn’t have to hide who we were around the six other teens who attended that day. It helped that the coordinators made conversation easy. I felt safe, welcome, and like I could speak my mind without my identity being challenged at every moment.
Joining the OutCenter helped me realize that talking about LGTQ+ relationships is normal. Mentioning the word “gay” doesn’t have to be met with an argument or debate. I could say I had a crush on a girl and no one would bat their eye or question my intentions.
I spent the next fews years of high school attending as many meetings as I could. Sometimes I brought along other friends who were interested. At the time, the OutCenter was the only place I knew of that had an accessible Teen Pride program in the area. I didn’t realize how important that space was until years later, when I traveled to different parts of the country and saw how few safe spaces existed in more rural areas.
Three years after leaving the OutCenter to head to college, I had the opportunity to volunteer with the Teen Pride program. This time it was for their Pride Prom, which had become an annual event. I was shocked when the event organizers told me that they were expecting “up to 50 people” to attend.
A small gathering of seven people that started in a tiny apartment in Benton Harbor had become a big event in the community, all in a matter of six years. And in these six years the OutCenter has helped vet candidates for office, helped establish a nondiscrimination ordinance, and is now working with 16 schools, helping them to understand and support LGBTQ+ youth across the area.
And in six years the OutCenter has helped vet candidates for office, helped establish a nondiscrimination ordinance, and is now working with 16 schools, helping them to understand and support LGBTQ+ youth across the area. That says a lot about the power of the OutCenter.
Please consider donating to the OutCenter at https://outcenterprod.wpengine.com/future/