Out on the Town

Dressed in a sharp black pantsuit that she had borrowed from her mother, 18-year-old Courtney Fuqua ran her hand through her short haircut and looked around at the gaggle of teenagers hugging, dancing and enjoying the prom night Courtney had been helping plan since early May. The theme was "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and the Lovett Inn was decked out for the occasion. Pink tablecloths and purple silver streamers were paired with faux white floral arrangements donated by JC Penney's (the stepmother of a prom committee member works there). Outside by the pool, tiny green lights dotted the patio fence and lit up the clear summer sky. Inside, napkins in every color of the rainbow sat by a table full of finger food.

Sure, a couple of girls were dancing with other girls, and there were two or three boys in drag, but other than that it seemed like your average prom.

"That's my sister," Courtney announced suddenly, waving to a long-haired girl strolling by in a velvet dress and lots of makeup. "She's straight, but she's cool."

Straight or gay, it was all cool at the seventh annual HATCH (Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals) prom. About 50 to 60 Houston-area youths, most of them members of the HATCH support group that was founded in 1987, donned their finest to get funky and celebrate themselves. The organization, which creates a safe environment for gay youth ages 13 through 20, held the prom both as a fund-raiser and as an opportunity to enjoy a traditional American experience many gay teens say they don't feel comfortable participating in.

"I couldn't exactly take my girlfriend to my prom," said 20-year-old Stephanie Harrison, who rested happily in the arms of her date on a patio chair by the pool. "I'd have gotten my fair share of 'You're going to hell.' " Dressed in a black dress with red feathers that she had found at Liquid, Stephanie said she chose to boycott her own high school prom, rather than endure any ridicule from classmates. HATCH, Stephanie said, provides a respite from the close-mindedness she encounters living in the northern suburbs.

"I'm 281 also," said Stephanie's 18-year-old date, referring to her home in Spring. "It's an escape from suburbia."

Unlike Stephanie and her date, most of the prom partiers arrived without significant others, proving HATCH program director Carol Petrucci's point that "it's not about sexual activity, it's about sexuality."

Indeed, the crowd of well-dressed kids seemed more intent on grooving and dancing together to Ricky Martin songs under the huge LOVE HAS NO GENDER banner, rather than participating in the public making out that goes on at traditional proms.

"It's not necessarily to find a boyfriend, but to find people you can identify with," said 18-year-old Alex Morris, of HATCH's role in his coming out. "It gave me a social life." Alex, who will be studying theater and psychology at New York University in the fall, was wearing yellow-tinted sunglasses and a baby blue pantsuit he had discovered at a local Value Village. His parents wouldn't let him take a boy to his high school prom, he said, for fear that Alex's younger brother and sister would be ridiculed at school. This night, he added, was an opportunity to really be himself.

"If you're going to write an article, write about how everyone is dressed," Alex insisted, as he smiled at a girl with hot-pink hair.

"This is Flamingo Pink," explained 19-year-old Crystal Pyle, touching her short, spunky 'do. Crystal, who had dyed her hair to match the dress (or, perhaps, had found a dress to match the hair), said she had worn a tuxedo to her own high school prom.

"It was like, 'Here's my statement,' " said Crystal. "But it wasn't all me." Crystal's girlfriend at the time wouldn't accompany Crystal to the prom because she was not yet out to her parents.

Being out to family seemed to be the rule and not the exception for many teens at the dance, and program director Petrucci said more and more teens at younger and younger ages are being encouraged to attend HATCH support group meetings by parents who recognize their children need others they can relate to.

"It's about feeling safe about who they are," said Petrucci. "Counselors recommend kids; parents bring kids. I love that. The mainstream is beginning to understand."

If it's just beginning to understand, it certainly didn't even try to comprehend when Ridge Youngblood was coming out as a young adult in Houston. Youngblood, 42, was one of several adults who had donated money to attend the fund-raising event (the teens who showed up got to attend for free). HATCH, he said, is something that would have helped him feel less isolated when he was coming out in the mid- and late '70s.

"They're very healthy; they're very happy," said Youngblood of the dancing teens, as Cher's voice floated through the air. "They're much further along than I was at age 21, 22. The fact that they're here, I think, is an amazing thing. I think they're very brave."

Much of the money raised by Youngblood and other adults who attended the dance will go to support HATCH programs and scholarships. During a break in the dance, HATCH board members handed out scholarships to seven HATCH teens who had been through a lengthy application process to win some of the $50,000 raised in scholarship money during the past year. According to Petrucci, a big reason high school teens remain in the closet is the fear of being cut off financially and losing the money needed to attend school.

After the scholarship announcements, a representative from the mayor's office showed up with a large framed document that proclaimed June 19 HATCH Prom '99 Day. As he stressed the importance of community involvement, most of the teens whispered and chatted with each other and seemed to be itching to have the music turned back on. Perhaps they were only looking forward to the upcoming Prom King and Queen vote (a girl won the King role, and a boy dressed as a girl took the Queen title).

After the proclamation, the Village People's "YMCA" pounded through the stereo, and a large group of teens got up to get down, complete with the familiar gestures. A few semi-exhausted kids went outside and draped themselves on the front steps of the inn, and several more crowded around the pool to gossip and relax. If it hadn't been for the large rainbow-striped gay pride flag floating above the inn's doorway, the gay teenagers would have seemed like everyday kids enjoying a good time with friends. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what they were.

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