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Outside of The Andy Warhol Museum, a line of teenagers stretches from the entrance all the way down the block. A man walking past on his way to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ game stops and asks if they’re waiting to go into a rock show. On this muggy Saturday evening in May, the high schoolers—standing in packs and decked out in taffeta gowns, rainbow-sequined platform shoes, velvet blazers, and pink cowboy hats—are waiting to enter The Warhol’s LGBTQ+ Youth Prom.
Inside, a friendly storm of about 400 young people are having a really great, loud, frenetic party. As promgoers spill into the museum, the DJs cue the music. It’s a dazzling spectacle of cosmic ephemera. Tables decorated with glow sticks, alien party favors, and cellophane orbs. Flags hang from the ceiling, each representing a realm of LGBTQ+ possibilities: one with stripes the colors of the rainbow, long considered the first flag of gay liberation; one with white, blue, and pink stripes symbolizing transgender identities; another with lavender, white, and green stripes representing gender queer identities or those who identify with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders; and a flag with blue, purple, and pink stripes for bisexuality. In the center of the room is an all-you-can-eat burrito buffet.
“There are places like this because [queer youth] are real. This is something that is real, and it can give a lot of people verification that they are valid.”
– Promgoer Red Goblet
Work on the event began in February when three of the museum’s artist-educators, Christen DiLeonardo, Adrian Gordon, and Grace Marston, formed a planning committee led by teens from Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas. The teens chose outer space as the theme at the first meeting. For committee member Chloe Young, a senior at Seneca Valley High School north of Pittsburgh, outer space resonated with her idea of what it means to identify as queer. “Space is the future. In space there is unlimited possibility, which to me is like being queer,” says Young.
The 18-year-old found that the meetings were valuable not just for planning the perfect end-of-school party, but they also gave participants a place to talk and be themselves, a luxury not always afforded at school, home, or in their communities. “The meetings were nice. You could go and be very outwardly queer, because even if you are open with your friends in Harmony, [PA, where she lives], being out isn’t always the best idea,” says Young, noting instances of bigotry that she chooses not to discuss publicly.
Sixteen-year-old Red Goblet, who attends Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts High School (CAPA), believes Warhol would have liked that the prom is held at his museum, a space the sophomore finds safe and supportive. “I’m at prom because my community is here,” says Goblet. “It’s one of the rare events where I get to be in places like this—in community. … There are places like this because [queer youth] are real. This is something that is real, and it can give a lot of people verification that they are valid.”
Come as you are
The Warhol has long been a place where teens find artistic inspiration and oftentimes a voice. Gordon, one of the Warhol staff at the helm of prom, was out as queer during his high school years at CAPA. He participated in multiple youth programs at the museum, including the Radical Urban Silkscreen Team (RUST), a summer program that teaches young people the low-cost skill of printmaking, and how to use the medium as an agent of change in their communities. The experience exposed Gordon to working artists, advocacy, and the possibility of a career in the arts. After leaving Pittsburgh for college in Chicago, where he earned his bachelor of fine arts, he returned and was hired as part of the team at The Warhol.
Today, through his work on prom, Gordon advocates for LGBTQ teens, and helps many of them cultivate their artistic and activist visions.
“There remains a clear need for safer spaces for LGBTQ youth,” he says. “Some go to schools with administrations unreceptive to changing discriminatory policies, such as transgender students being required to use a restroom that doesn’t correspond to their gender identity; policies prohibiting students from bringing same-sex dates to school events; the historic exclusion of LGBTQ people from homecoming court rituals; and being required to change into gendered clothing in order to attend a school function.”
Attendance at this year’s LGBTQ+ Youth Prom, the fourth to be hosted by The Warhol, surpassed prior years by about 100 guests. Gordon expects that the size will continue to grow.
“We’ve been working to make prom accessible to LGBTQ youth living in rural areas and those who have difficulty attending due to lack of affordable transportation,” says Gordon, noting the museum coordinates free transportation for student groups and keeps ticket prices, which includes dinner, at $5.
As a museum dedicated to individuality and creative expression, The Warhol made sure its prom was about more than dinner and dancing. Tonight, the museum’s underground art studio is a hive of activity as partygoers bounce between art stations, silk-screening commemorative bags and t-shirts with out-of-this-world designs and visiting tables dedicated to face painting, button making, safer-sex practices by way of the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force, and of course a prom rite-of-passage, Warhol-style: a blinged-out photo booth.
There doesn’t appear to be anyone standing alone, appearing left out, at this prom, a rarity at any teen-focused event. David Goist says that’s the very reason he encouraged his son, Joey, to participate. “I wanted to give him a chance to be around more and different people so that he could possibly have a lot more friends and new experiences,” says Goist. “We’re very proud of Joey. I think it was brave of him to come out this early, and we are supporting everything that he does.”
The word “acceptance” comes up a lot here. For Allison White, a senior at New Brighton High School about 30 miles from Pittsburgh, the fact that the museum’s bathrooms are labeled all gender and are open to anyone helps the space feel welcoming. (The Warhol labels its restrooms all-gender spaces during youth events. The museum is currently seeking funding for a larger facilities initiative that includes permanent gender-neutral accommodations.) For Chloe Young, it’s meaningful that the prom is held at a museum dedicated to an openly gay artist revered worldwide. Gryphon Ludwig, a senior at Seneca Valley High School, says that to him, a special night like this is all about not judging.
“When you look at someone who is trans and non-binary or bisexual, you say ‘great’ and move forward,” says Ludwig.
For some of the teens, a sense of belonging and support shows in what they chose to wear—attire not typically worn by someone of their assigned gender—or by expressing gender ambiguity.
Being out is often situational and/or complex, especially so for LGBTQ youth. For many of the promgoers, having a place where they feel supported for being who they are—even for an evening—was a treasured experience. Museum staff conducted interviews with some of the teens in attendance, without asking for names.
One youth said, “I can use my name here. In school, I have to go by my old name, which is hilarious, because it’s not even my legal name anymore.”
“It’s so good knowing that there are others like you.”
A chaperone who brought 30 kids by bus from a rural community about 45 minutes from Pittsburgh said, “I just remember as a kid from a small town, it was really amazing to come into Pittsburgh and get to meet other kids like me when I felt very isolated. So, that’s why I think I’m especially enjoying tonight because I’m getting to bring other kids from my hometown. …And they don’t have to feel so alone in our little world.”
Some youth acknowledged that they didn’t feel welcome or comfortable at the proms hosted by their schools. At least one student reported being bullied regularly and was forced to change schools. For many, the LGBTQ+ Youth Prom is a place free of judgment, jokes, and a chance to be in a space where they don’t have to explain themselves. “It’s so good knowing that there are others like you,” said one youth. “This is the place where fitting in is just being you,” said another.
As one of the only events of its kind in southwest Pennsylvania, many of the partygoers had to secure rides to the event. Anthony Rucco was lucky enough to have his grandmother, Gloria Juceam, drive him nearly six hours from his hometown of Laurence Harbor, New Jersey. The 15-year-old often attends a LGBTQ youth club near his hometown, but tonight he’s excited to meet up with a young man he met online.
“You have to be supportive because he’s not doing anything wrong,” says Juceam, who is hesitant about navigating the city alone while her grandson dances inside the museum. So she sits in the adjacent parking lot, content to people-watch until the event is over.
Knowing your history
Prom is just one way The Warhol supports the LGBTQ community and its namesake’s role in it. The museum regularly celebrates National Coming Out Day with special queer-focused tours. It hosts TQ Live! performances, featuring artists and performers from the city’s queer communities. In the summer of 2014, Grace Marston, one of the prom advisors, developed the Dandy Andy: Warhol’s Queer History tour, which traces the gay icon’s romantic relationships and queer identity against the backdrop of the historical gay-rights movement in the United States. They’re offered the last Saturday of every month at 3 p.m.
“Even when the gay community-at-large was experiencing setbacks, Warhol was creating transgressive work and featuring marginalized people in his projects,” says Marston. “He was not a mirror of his time; he was pushing forward by ignoring censorship and the discrimination against gay people that was happening at the time. He was giving an outlet and a lot of visibility to the queer community back then.”
Warhol’s boyfriends, including Edward Wallowitch, John Giorno, and Jed Johnson, were also his colleagues and collaborators, helping to shape and define his career as an artist.
As tables and chairs in the museum’s entrance space are cleared to make way for the dance floor, Gordon steps forward with a microphone and calls the crowd to attention. He introduces Patrick Moore, director of the museum, who pauses a moment, taking in the faces looking back at him. At 54 years old, Moore’s high school years were quite different than those of the adolescents waiting for his welcome.
“I grew up as a gay boy in Iowa, and I am so proud of you for turning out and being proud of yourself in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” says Moore. “Andy Warhol was gay and he couldn’t be gay in this way in Pittsburgh. The Warhol loves you. Please love you, too.”
And with that the crowd whoops and screams as if they really are at a rock show. Then the lights dim and the DJs cue Super Bass by Nicki Minaj and the teens take to the dance floor, a mass of undulating bodies and happy, sweaty faces. And with each new song, the throng of merrymakers lets out a cheer.
Support for the 2017 LGBTQ+ Youth Prom was provided by American Eagle Outfitters.
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