At first glance, the prom doesn’t scream “signifier of gay cultural history.” It’s a campy, overly ritualized high school dance, best left to the cool kids while the freaks sneak out to smoke or screw, tossing a disdainful glance at their misguided peers. But David Boyer’s colorful foray into promland offers a prism for viewing the last 75 years of gay life (including closeted, confused, and out and proud).
He covers newsmakers like Krystal Bennett, a butch teenager elected “Prom King,” and Dan Stewart, who loudly protested classmate Aaron Fricke’s successful lawsuit to take his male date to the prom in 1980 (Stewart himself later became an openly gay mayor), as well as those who’ve lived, and made, history more quietly. Boyer adeptly lets voices such as Dick Hewetson (class of ’48), who organized an adult gay prom, and author Jenny (born James) Boylan, who recounts struggling with gender issues, speak for themselves. From male high school sweethearts to the teen who envisioned a prom fresh from Pretty in Pink, each contributor approaches the big event with unique motives and memories.
Kings details a range of prom nights, like that of Avram Finkelstein, an ACT UP founder who protested the Vietnam War instead of partying. Boyer’s present-to-past chronology helps situate New York’s Harvey Milk High School against the evolution of activism and struggle, also tackling racism and class issues. By keeping the oral histories first-person, he fleshes out the yearbook-like labels adorning each tale, providing the human interest story behind the ex-cheerleader or the porn star. From modern gay proms back to Stonewall and paddy wagons, these entertaining histories together showcase just how far the GLBT movement has come, while honoring those who’ve paved the disco-ball-filled way.