LAKEWOOD RANCH -- It seemed like any other prom. Teenagers were dressed in formal attire looking their very best, talking with friends, dancing, laughing, enjoying all the delicious goodies and just having fun.
But then again, this summer night-themed prom held at The Out-of-Door Academy in Lakewood Ranch was special. It was Sarasota and Manatee counties' first alternative prom, hosted for LGBT youth, their friends and supporters so they could feel comfortable being themselves among their peers, no matter their real or perceived differences.
Just a little over an hour after the prom had started, it was well on its way toward reaching its attendance goal of 200 teenagers, which was extremely satisfying to the hosts, ALSO Youth, a Sarasota nonprofit that's been around for 22 years providing peer support, social activities, educational programs and workshops to southwest Florida's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. The organization maintains a Drop-In Center in downtown Sarasota at 1470 Boulevard of the Arts, which many of the LGBT prom guests regularly visit along with their supportive friends.
Planning for the prom began back in September when the group decided it was past time that Sarasota and Manatee counties acknowledge LGBT youth and give them a space where they can be safe and express themselves fully and completely.
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"It's not that they're not welcome at their own proms, but this is an alternative where they don't have to worry at all when they walk through the door about who they come in with. Whether they come with their friends, partners, or come alone, we want them to feel that this is a welcoming place," said Mark Steinwachs, prom co-chair and an ALSO Youth board member.
It certainly felt inviting to David Wecke, a 17-year-old student at Suncoast Polytechnic High School in Sarasota who considers himself bisexual or questioning at the moment. Wecke said his home and high school life are pretty accepting of his situation.
"My whole family supports me and my sexuality, and they don't have any problem with it. At school, it's a few teachers, but my fellow students are accepting of it," he said.
For Felicia Cortes, a 17-year-old student at Southeast High School in Bradenton who is bisexual, the alternative prom was a more affordable opportunity to her high school prom and a chance to wear a dress she felt comfortable in. Cortes says her bisexuality is no big deal at school or at home either.
"My parents say if you are or aren't, I still love you, and that's all that matters."
Many local companies pitched in to support the alternative prom, offering free prizes and gift certificates to the prom-goers, refreshments from Bradenton-based Tropicana, as well as food from The Blue Rooster and cupcakes from Cupcakes a Go Go, both located in Sarasota. Dance music played throughout the night under a darkened, star-lit gymnasium where high school students, who came from Bradenton, Sarasota, North Port and Venice, hit the dance floor with and without shoes and let their hair down for the evening.
While the success of the prom was welcomed by the adults who manage and serve on the board of ALSO Youth, there was a larger goal at hand with a far reaching message,
"We feel it's not only important for the youth who come, but it's important for people to know that we're creating a supportive community. The message goes far beyond this night into something much larger," Steinwachs said. "We're trying to create an atmosphere that supports its youth and adults."