When envisioning the prom of her dreams, Libby Gonzales, a 13-year-old Texan who is helping plan the first-ever transgender youth prom at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., had a lot of big ideas.
Plenty of those ideas—including a boba tea bar and face painting—didn’t make the cut, but she’s excited to share what the prom will have: a drag performance by MC Stormie Daie, live music, and mostly pop and rock anthems, (by ABBA, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry) selected by the organizers. Guests will enter the event through the “Tunnel of Love” with colors inspired by the transgender flag, before being met with decor that nods to the ’70s, inspired by the Stonewall uprising, a six-day protest that marked the turning point in the fight for queer rights.
And then there’s Libby’s outfit, a long, tiered polka-dot black dress with poofy sleeves and custom Converse sneakers detailed with pink stitching. She plans to don a flower crown to finish off her look.
Libby and the prom’s three other organizers, Daniel Trujillo, 15; Grayson McFerrin, 12; and Hobbes Chukumba, 16, are among the 200 people—including trans youth from 17 states—set to attend the prom on May 22 in a show of resilience during a time where trans rights are being stripped away.
In America, proms have long been a celebratory rite of passage towards adulthood, self-actualization and independence. These teens, who hail from across the country, want to spend the day dancing and hanging out with their friends without the current political climate weighing on them. They’d rather look forward to the upcoming drag performance by Grayson, who lives in Texas and who Libby describes as “energetic and sparkly.”
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“The trans prom is meant to emphasize the pride and joy and happiness that is within the trans community that cannot be broken,” says Hobbes, a New Jersey native, who is juggling prom committee work while he thinks about the SAT and his future career in STEM. “We’re trying to show that trans people can and will continue to be brilliant and great. And really, it’s meant to be a space that lets trans kids be kids.”
The concept for the prom stemmed from the frustration co-organizers Daniel, who lives in Arizona, and Libby, who first met on a camping trip coordinated by their parents in 2019, were feeling about the more than 475 anti-LGBTQ legislative bills introduced across the country in 2023. “We wanted a way to be able to tell our stories ourselves and tell them the right way,” Libby says.
So far this year, some 20 states have passed laws banning gender-affirming care for people under the age of 18, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an organization dedicated to advocating for LGBTQ+ equality. At least three states—Oklahoma, Texas and South Carolina—have considered barring care for transgender people up to age 26. There’s also been the resurgence of bathroom bills, which bar transgender people from using the restroom that matches their gender identity.
In other states, individuals’ freedom of expression is also being stripped as seen through drag bans and a recently-decided legal suit where a federal judge ruled that a transgender Mississippi girl had to abide by her principal and superintendent’s mandate to dress like a boy at her graduation ceremony.
A January poll by the Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for queer youth, showed that 86% of transgender and nonbinary youth said their mental health was negatively impacted by lawmakers’ debates around anti-trans bills in 2022. That sentiment proves true for both Daniel and Libby, who have been regularly involved in the world of advocacy, visiting their state’s capitals for the first time as young as six and nine years old to have speeches they wrote be read for testimony. Their lives continue to be disrupted by the fight to exist as they choose, they say.
“My GPA dropped from going [to the state capitol] consistently, and it threw all of us into a really stressful space because my parents had to keep working [and then] drop what they were doing to drive to Phoenix,” Daniel tells TIME. “Having to sit through testimonies for people who are saying that I’m mentally ill, it’s really hurtful and frustrating.”
Libby’s mother, Rachel Gonzales, says her daughter was “forced into advocacy” because of her identity, and recently had to take a break from testifying against bills because of the mental and emotional toll it was taking. Instead, Libby has pivoted to planning an event that she sees as a chance to reclaim her agency.
How an inclusive prom came to life
Libby and Daniel’s involvement in civic action, though difficult, also connected them to a network of support that helped bring their vision of a safe space for queer youth to fruition.
Most of the organizers’ parents knew each other from the Parents for Transgender Equality Council at the HRC, which Gonzales refers to as her “chosen family.” It is also through their advocacy work that the parents were able to connect with Chase Strangio, who is the Deputy Director for Transgender Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. Strangio, who is a leading figure in legal battles for trans rights, helped organize the event.
“Lizette (Daniel’s mom) and I were like, OK, our kids have an awesome idea. We have to figure out how to help them do this,” Gonzales says. “And so we talked to Chase, and it went from Chase saying, ‘Oh, they could do this,’ to this shift in the conversation where he said, ‘We can do this.’”
Strangio, who the organizers jokingly referred to as their “trans-fairy godfather,” met Daniel and Libby’s parents while doing advocacy work in the south. Strangio calls his work on the prom a “refreshing shift” from his regular nine-to-five, which can often feel emotionally taxing because he most commonly works with trans youth in more disheartening contexts where they are involved in litigation to protect their rights.
“It’s really easy to become jaded and exhausted and so one of the things about intergenerational organizing that’s so powerful is that it gives us an opportunity to both remember how much we can survive when we organize with our elders, and also how much larger we can dream when we organize with our youth,” he tells TIME.
Trans joy in action
For the youth organizers, the dream to show trans joy in action and show other trans youth that they can lead joyous and fulfilling lives comes in the form of Daniel’s guitar performance of Demi Lovato’s “Warrior,” and Grayson’s planned performance.
Grayson, who says they are most excited about meeting other youth at the prom because they did not grow up around many transgender people, says the event represents a safe space where they can simply celebrate their existence. “You can make whatever kind of laws that you want. You can try to get rid of us, but we’re gonna be here, we’re gonna stay here. And there’s nothing that you can do about that,” Grayson tells TIME. And planning the event, which marks all of the teens’ first experience organizing, has pushed teens like Hobbes to grow as an advocate, his father Stephen Chukumba says. Hobbes was not particularly interested in advocacy until this year, after he attended a Human Rights Campaign meeting with his father.
“He recognized that there was a fight out there, and that there were people who were putting it all on the line in order to make sure that the future for people like him was secured,” Chukumba says. “I’ve seen the growth of a person who’s learning how to self advocate, which is important for every parent because one day, we’re not going to be here. And one day our kids are going to have to stand on their own.”
It’s also a welcome reprieve for parents who worry about their children’s future. Libby’s mother says she has grown and matured over the past few months. “She’s had an opportunity to be super cognizant and mindful of the work that they’re doing in a whole new way that I think has opened up the world to her where she realizes that her advocacy doesn’t have to be confined to a really traumatizing level of testifying, or showing up at the capitol,” Gonzales tells TIME.
This time the teen will be showing up at a different Capitol for a more exciting reason—to attend her first prom.
And while the organizers are excited to talk about their prom looks, their faces light up the most when discussing the significance of hosting a ball of this scale. “This prom is going to be really important because of all the trans youth who are going to see this big event filled with trans joy,” Daniel says. “I want them to see that and always remember that there’s going to be a community who is there to support them.”
Correction, May 22
The original version of this story misstated the name of one of the organizer’s parents. Daniel’s mother is Lizette, not Lisa.
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