Image: Ebone Bell
Jacquelyn Martin  /  AP
Ebone Bell, 27, of Silver Spring, Md., poses for a portrait Thursday on the boat she is renting to host a prom for adult gays and lesbians in Washington.
updated 3/7/2009 9:41:32 AM ET 2009-03-07T14:41:32

Back in his small Iowa hometown, Tate attended his high school senior prom by himself, dressed in slacks and a tie.

It was an awkward night, one he likened to standing outside a window watching people inside having fun at a gathering that "was not designed for you," said 24-year-old Tate, a Silver Spring, Md., accountant who is biologically female, but presents a masculine exterior in clothing and mannerism. He prefers the masculine pronoun to refer to himself, and does not use his legal first name, listing himself as D. Tate on his company directory.

"I didn't experience prom in the same fashion that the rest of the kids did," said Tate, who grew up in Coon Rapids, Iowa, where he attended his 2002 senior prom.

But Tate got a second chance last year at D.C.'s Capital Queer Prom, where, to his surprise, he was crowned prom king. The third annual event takes place Saturday, and gives gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender adults the chance to recreate the high school prom they never experienced. For some, it's simply an opportunity to get gussied up and enjoy a fun night.

More fundraiser than fete
Advocates say Capital Queer Prom is similar to a few events across the country, though not as common as gay youth proms held by advocacy groups nationwide. Miami's Pridelines Youth Services started holding an "adult gala" four years ago after adults who chaperoned the group's annual gay youth prom clamored for their own shindig, executive director Luigi Ferrer said.

But the fete is less about recreating prom night, he said, and more about raising money for the organization and celebrating its accomplishments.

Other groups have planned similar events to raise money and give older gay people another chance at the high school ritual. Out Youth in Austin, Texas, will hold an adult prom in May, and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center is throwing its 11th prom for adults 50 and older in June.

In D.C., Capital Queer Prom is organized by 27-year-old Ebone Bell, founder of the event-planning company B.O.I. Productions. Bell, of Silver Spring, Md., said she expects some 250 people to attend the dance on the Spirit of Mount Vernon, a ship that cruises along the Potomac River in D.C. and Virginia. Proceeds will benefit One in Ten, a D.C. nonprofit that produces Reel Affirmations, D.C.'s annual gay and lesbian film festival.

On Saturday night, prom guests will also vote for a prom king and queen, who are nominated for their work in the Washington area's gay community.

Such events allow some gay adults to transform what might have been a painful memory into a positive one, said Linda Goldman, a Chevy Chase, Md., therapist and author of "Coming Out, Coming In," a book about inclusion of gay youth.

"Even though trends are changing, there are very few schools where kids would feel safe enough to come to a prom coupled as same-sex couples," Goldman said. "They either stay under the radar screen or come with opposite sex friends or they really don't go."

As a result, some gay adults feel they might have missed out on "a rite of passage on something that by its very nature suggests inclusion for all," she said.

'It made my mom happy'
For Bell, attending her 1999 prom at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Md., was hardly exciting. Still, she went all out, donning a royal blue dress, pulling on elbow-length gloves and wearing hair extensions. She asked a guy from another school.

"I did it to show face, because that's what you're supposed to do," said Bell, adding that at the time, she was in denial about her attraction to women. "And it made my mom happy."

Bell got the idea for Capital Queer Prom a few years ago while watching a teen movie that featured a typical prom scene. She dreamed of how nice it would be to have attended prom with her girlfriend "and feel comfortable with who I am." She figured others in D.C.'s gay and lesbian community felt the same.

But for some attending Saturday, Capital Queer Prom has nothing to do with reliving high school.

"I'm just looking forward to spending the evening with my boyfriend, with the both of us dressed sharp as tacks, holding hands walking down the street, turning heads," 35-year-old Michael Eichler, a regional transportation planner in D.C., said in an e-mail.

Tate's going again, too, and will crown this year's king. He already has a tuxedo and a date for the party.

Having a place "where you can go with your partner and dance and be affectionate ... those spaces are precious," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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