Annual Prom will be Queer as Folk with a Hoe-down Theme Posted by: Stacey Bowers | 0 Comments
On the corner of Ninth and State streets in downtown Little Rock, red, white and blue drapes half-moon the windows of Taborian Hall. Inside, the shelves of Arkansas Flag and Banner display patriotic memorabilia, a hodgepodge of flags — from Confederate to rainbow — and a handful of items touting “God Bless the U.S.A.” It isn’t exactly the atmosphere one would expect from the last historic edifice standing in what was once known as “Little Harlem,” and it’s a stretch to believe that upstairs, decked in peeling, pink-and-white-checkered paint, Dreamland Ballroom bathes in dust and sunlight and awaits hundreds of guests to Little Rock’s fourth annual Queer Prom.
The event began as a birthday party for Queer Prom’s executive director Cash Ashley, who’d been toying with the idea for years and saw it as a way to celebrate gender equality and raise money for his top surgery. Since then he’s donated a portion of the proceeds to a person seeking gender-related surgeries each year, and the rest benefits a local non-profit — Lucie’s Place, a shelter for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, according to its website) benefitted the past two years, and this year’s donation goes to the Lucas C. Hunsicker Memorial Scholarship Fund.
What made it easy to transition from a gathering of friends to a ballroom brimming with more than 500 attendees in just four years is a staggering amount of support from the community, and a reputation for putting on a rare show. Last year’s burlesque performance and “roaring twenties” theme drew an enormous crowd, and this year’s much-anticipated “hoedown” theme, complete with kissing booth, drag king and queen show, photo booth and performance by Bonnie Montgomery, will surely break attendance records. Ashley has searched for events similar to his in the South, but they are few, far between and often very slight. He visited a similar event in Nashville, Tenn., and was startled to discover an event with one-fifth the attendance of Little Rock’s Queer Prom.
Some find it hard to believe that a Queer Prom could garner success in a famously conservative city like Little Rock, but Ashley isn’t so surprised by the event’s popularity — and the growing number of heterosexual guests does not surprise him either.
“I just think it’s something that people can easily get into,” he said. “Gay people aren’t the only people who are bullied or have self esteem issues. I know plenty of people who just want a place they can go to and know that they’re supported and that community is very important in that space. I think that desire spans gender, sexuality, race, everything.”
Ashley said a supportive community was hard to find growing up in Little Rock. “I always felt like Arkansas was this thing I needed to escape. I couldn’t wait until I got old enough to move out of this city where no one understood,” he said. He did get away from Arkansas. He moved to Atlanta, Ga., where he said exposure to the LGBTQ community there made him realize that “[gay] people are everywhere, and they aren’t hiding. It’s still the South, but there are so many places and so many events [for the LGBTQ community]… My hope is that more things like that will happen here. I really feel like if something like [Queer Prom] were happening here when I was younger, I wouldn’t have felt so strongly that I needed to get away.”
This mentality drove him to open Queer Prom to all ages last year and to keep it that way this year. After all, it is a prom. “I went to private schools all my life, so I didn’t get to take my girlfriend to prom in high school. I just wanted to have an event where people could come with whomever they wanted to and have a good time,” Cash said. Last year when he was checking IDs at the door, Cash noticed a lot of teen attendees, which he confessed was uplifting. “It’s hard [to be gay], especially in the South. People — especially young people — think they don’t have any allies,” he said, speaking from experience. “I didn’t really know about the gay community when I was younger. I felt like it was difficult for me to figure out that people were on my side. It’s really important to me to do whatever we can manage to let people know that it’s ok, that the community is here.” Coinciding with that spirit, this year’s Queer Prom will host booths from some of Little Rock’s LGBTQ-friendly organizations, which will distribute pamphlets and information.
Cash said he has heard only one criticism: “The only thing I really hear is from an older generation, and it’s that they don’t really like the word ‘queer’… It’s been used in a derogatory way for a long time.” He said he understands but defends his use of the word. “I feel like its more inclusive… even if people aren’t gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual, maybe they feel like they’re queer in other ways, like they live on the margins or people don’t get them or don’t like them,” he explained. “Everyone is welcome. As long as you’re going to be nice and respect everyone else, I want you here and I support you and hope that you’ll support me.”
Queer Prom 2013: A Hoedown will be held May 11, from 8 p.m. to midnight, at Dreamland Ballroom, 800 W. Ninth St., Little Rock. A $10 donation is suggested, but no one will be turned away due to lack of funds.
When she’s not writing, Stacey Bowers is hiking, climbing and exploring her home state of Arkansas and (poorly) planning her next adventure. She is currently the associate editor at Little Rock-based AY Magazine.
Photos courtesy of Cash Ashley.
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