Nevaeh Hernandez showed up to prom last Saturday in a purple dress. She went with her friend, Jennifer Smith, and her goal was "just to have fun."
In many ways, the prom she attended was like any other. Catered food and nervous swaying along with a photobooth, a DJ and a dance floor. But the DJ kept playing RuPaul, the dancers were death-dropping under a rainbow balloon arch, and all the nervous swaying stopped when the drag show started.
Hernandez and Smith had tickets to Q-Prom, an annual dance party thrown by the Sacramento LGBT Community Center for youth and allies ages 13 to 20.
As Jesse Archer, the Youth Programs Manager for the center and one of the Q-Prom organizers said the event is "one night when they can just feel free to dress, look, and be how they want."
A decade ago, when the center held the first Q-Prom, about 50 people showed up, Archer said. Last year, more than 700 people came, and Archer expected an even bigger turnout this year.
The center reaches out to Gay-Straight Alliances and Queer Student Alliances at high schools and colleges across Northern California in anticipation of the event.
For many guests, especially those from rural areas, "this is the first positive 'young adult thing' they've been to," said Kelsie Hale, Youth Pier Advocate and Project Coordinator for the center. Tickets cost $10, but no one is turned away if they can't pay, Archer said.
For Hernandez and Smith, the journey to the University Ballroom at Sacramento State, where Q-Prom was held, was more than a day or two in the making.
They both live in the LGBT Community Center's new temporary housing facility, designated for queer youth who are experiencing homelessness. Roughly 30 percent of homeless youth in California identify as LGBTQ, according to the UCLA Williams Institute.
"I wasn't comfortable where I lived, so I had to leave," said Smith, who is bisexual. Almost 70 percent of the youth the center serves on a regular basis have experienced homelessness, Hale said.
The center hired hair stylists and make-up artists for the morning of Q-Prom so that attendees like Smith and Hernandez could live out an authentic prom experience.
Smith described Q-Prom as "great, because nobody's judging me. I am myself with friends who are like me and who have been through stories like mine."
Guests don't have to be LGBTQ to attend Q-Prom, Hale explained, but they must respect its rules. Signs posted along the ballroom's entryway specified that racism, xenophobia, transphobia and homophobia, among other prejudices, were not welcome, and required guests to "ask for consent when dancing with folks."
And dance they did. The stage's first drag performer of the night – wearing a yellow jumper, rocking a golden ponytail – didn't so much fall into a split as she did joyously thrust.
Q-Prom's attendees – careening their necks around the rainbow balloon arch on the dance floor, lifting their hands to Whitney Houston's "So Emotional" – roared.
Near the bathrooms, acquaintances complimented each others' outfits, from DIY light-up wedding dresses to glam-goth funeral veils.
Community members who volunteered to help staff Q-Prom said the spectacle represented something bigger.
"We grew up as outcasts," said Susan Harmon, who gave attendees their tickets. "It's a very different world."
Halfway through the night, Hernandez said she was having fun, just like she had hoped. But, as a trans woman who left home because she felt parents wouldn't accept her identity, the moment felt bittersweet.
"I wish my family were able to see me happy here," she said, nodding. After a beat, Smith grabbed her by the arm and pinched her purple dress. Then they headed back to the dance floor.