What prom was like for me, a queer teen who grew up without money
“This is perfect!” my cousin Nicole exclaimed when I stepped out of the dressing room wearing a strapless white ball gown decorated in red flowers.
“I know, but it’s $400,” I said. We’d stopped in a bridal store at the mall spontaneously to look at prom dresses, even though the dance wasn’t for another two months. She and I both knew that spending nearly half a grand on my dress wasn’t an option. My single dad had been struggling to keep up with bills on his cab driver wages after my mom died when I was 11. We didn’t even have a family car anymore, and I’d borrowed a dress for the semiformal from a friend. My neighbor had offered to let me try on her granddaughter’s old prom dress, but after seeing it on me, I begged my dad to let me buy one I actually liked.
We put the dress back on the rack. “Maybe it’ll go on sale,” Nicole said hopefully. She was 26 and understood my money woes; she’d helped me tour several colleges because it was impossible for my dad and me to get there on our own.
A survey by Visa shows that the average family spent $807 for their high school children to attend prom in 2011, the year of my senior prom. It has only increased since then.
“We live in an age of image, [of] materialism, and far too often, wealth is a common basis for self-esteem, identity, and personal value,” explains Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Teens coming from poor families, particularly those in schools that have many kids in higher socioeconomic brackets, often feel inferior, jealous, and do worry about how they and their parents are viewed and valued.”
As excited as I was to take my girlfriend to prom, I also spent months stressing out about the dance. I wanted our dresses to look cohesive and stylish together without matching exactly. I had no idea how I was going to afford a prom photo package. How much would a corsage cost? I was terrified that my friends would choose a limo I couldn’t chip in for, but too ashamed to admit we didn’t have the money. While none of my friends were rich, most of their parents had enough money that splurging on prom was just an annoyance—not insurmountable.
These worries aren’t unusual. “It is a significant milestone for all teenagers, and you are living in a microcosm where everyone is going through the same thing at the same time, leading to ample opportunity for social comparisons,” says Dr. Judy Ho, a clinical, forensic, and neuro psychologist. The pressure has only gotten worse as more people post idealized photos from prom and of promposals on social media. Low-income teens “won’t be able to afford to go even if they are invited, and if they go, they will struggle to be able to do it in a way that is affordable.”
The fact that prom was unaffordable to me highlighted how different I felt from many of my friends.
I didn’t have any LGBTQ+ friends in high school, and more than once, I’d noticed that my straight friends didn’t come to me for advice about their boyfriends because they assumed I “couldn’t understand.” One of my friends even said she didn’t think LGBTQ+ sex actually “counted,” as if she could arbitrarily qualify other people’s sexual intimacy. But I was 17, and it felt like there was a chasm between me and my straight friends. Being poor on top of that didn’t help.
LGBTQ+ proms are cropping up more and more as an alternative to traditional dances, but if they existed eight years ago, I didn’t know about them. These spaces are essential to LGBTQ+ teens, and they offer something I wished for when I was a senior: A place where I could celebrate my relationship with my girlfriend without constantly feeling different.
I’m lucky in many ways—my girlfriend and friends helped me out in ways they could, and I got creative for the rest. The dream $400 ball gown never wound up on sale, so I let my girlfriend take the lead in picking out her strapless gold dress and I matched it with one from the Macy’s sale rack. My best friend did my makeup, but I paid to have my hair styled. I took photos in the park with my digital camera instead of spending money on professional shots.
Once prom arrived, my nerves lessened. It felt like a big deal leading up to the night, but it was actually just a dance and a way to celebrate the end of high school with my friends When I look back on the photos now, I see that my high school girlfriend—whom I’m actually marrying eight years later—and I are smiling tenderly as we attempt to slow dance. I see that the dress I got off the sale rack looks cute and didn’t cost so much that I couldn’t afford a new laptop for college. I see that, although I no longer talk to most of the girls in my group photo, at the time they mattered more than anyone. And I see that, as ashamed as I was in the moment, it was the beginning of me learning to embrace my queerness and live my life boldly and without fear.