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What he supports:
LGBTQ+ Youth Prom at The Warhol
Why it matters:
“To see these kids feel safe and accepted for who they are is so amazing.”
When Ken Cirka first chaperoned The Andy Warhol Museum’s annual LGBTQ+ Youth Prom, he suspected it would be memorable. But being surrounded by 500 teenagers in a loud, frenetic dance party as they bounced to the beats, silkscreened commemorative tote bags and T-shirts, and mingled with one another—eagerly and comfortably—blew him away. He could have never imagined such an evening as a gay high school student in Ambridge in the late 1980s.
“I thought about how growing up in Beaver County I didn’t know anyone, personally, who was gay,” Ken recalls. “All through school, even during my undergraduate years at Grove City College—not until I was 25 years old. I did feel very isolated. To see these kids feel safe and accepted for who they are is so amazing.”
While he operates a dental practice in Philadelphia and lives in New York City, Ken keeps an eye on what’s happening in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities. His parents still live in Beaver County, and he visits regularly. It was during one of those trips four years ago when he visited The Warhol for the first time. He didn’t necessarily go to see the art—it was a bonus. He had read about the LGBTQ+ Youth Prom and headed to the museum to learn more. Soon, he was making the event free for 500 students, a commitment he’s now renewed three years running. And when the 2020 prom was canceled due to the pandemic, he increased his support and redirected it to other youth programming at the museum.
“Knowing that in New York City, for example, more than 80% of homeless teens identify as LGBTQ+, and many of them come out and get kicked out of their homes,” says Ken, “I started thinking about how I could help kids know it’s OK to be who you are, to love who you love.”
A fact not lost on Ken, or the teens, is that prom is held at a museum dedicated to an openly gay artist from Pittsburgh who is revered worldwide. Shortly after visiting the museum for the first time, Ken also realized just how much he and Warhol have in common, including their Slovak and Carpatho-Rusyn background and Byzantine Catholic faith. Growing up, Ken’s dad was a steelworker and his mom worked in the school cafeteria while raising three boys. But unlike Warhol, visiting museums and learning about art wasn’t part of his world. “I was in the band and played saxophone; that was the extent of my exposure to the arts.”
Inspired by the art-loving teens he met at The Warhol, Ken, who has traveled to Africa to donate his dentistry skills, decided to return to his alma mater in Ambridge to ask how he might support the students there. School staff shared that some students don’t have lunch money or a coat or everyday items such as deodorant and feminine products. He and an administrator came up with the idea of a Care to Share Locker that Ken funded and that is stocked with such items that are available to students for free.
An Ambridge student who met Ken at the prom invited him to return once again to the high school, this time to serve on a panel of alumni and other members in the community reflecting on their experience of coming out as gay. The audience included teens from across Beaver County.
During the event, a teen in the audience asked Ken how things are different today compared to when he was in high school. “I said, ‘Look to your left and to your right—all of these people are just like you. I didn’t have that. I didn’t know anyone who was gay or questioning their sexuality, and you all have the support of each other.’ It was so nice to be in a room full of hundreds of kids who don’t feel afraid to be who they are in Beaver County like I was 30 years ago. All of this was sparked by The Warhol,” he says.
“Prom is about acceptance. You don’t have to think about your sexuality for one day and you’re not worried in the back of your head if someone is thinking differently of you or you’re unsafe. Every kid deserves that.”
To learn more about giving opportunities at Carnegie Museums, contact Beth Brown at email@example.com or 412.622.8859.
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