Pilsen’s queer prom celebrates 20 years of providing a safe space for Latino youth

Queer Prom celebrated its 20th anniversary, tracing its origins to the corner of Blue Island Avenue and 18th Street in Pilsen, the site that was home to community youth radio station Radio Arte from 1998 to 2013.

Radio Arte, an iconic platform for two generations of Mexican-American and Latino youth from Pilsen and Little Village, was an initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) that sought to give them a space to express themselves, connect and create awareness.

Since then, the museum has hosted queer prom annually.

This year, the event was put on by Yollocalli, the museum’s youth outreach program in Little Village, and CALOR, an LGBTQ advocacy organization focused on HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness in the Latino community.

Beyond an exciting night of full of drag show competitions and the triple coronation of prom king, queen and queer, the programming also connected youth to resources, including llinois Contraceptive Access Now, Chicago Abortion Fund and Sexpectations.

“Prom is part of the American high school story, a final hurrah to celebrate all the work that you’ve done,” said Emmanuel Ramirez, a teaching artist at Yollocalli.

“But for a lot of queer youth, high school was not that,” Ramirez said “Queer prom gives people a chance to relive that.”

Alfredo Flores, lead organizer at CALOR, has helped put on the event the past three years.

“Everyone wants to be part of prom because it’s a high school thing, but unfortunately, not everyone feels comfortable coming as their authentic selves,” said Flores, who attended queer prom in 2013.

“I went to my high school program with my then-partner, but I didn’t get to experience the intimacy that I wanted,” Flores said. “But when we came to queer prom, I was able to express myself with them and hold their hand.”

Though Flores recognizes the strides made in the LGBTQ community, he also acknowledges the rise of anti-LGBTQ laws that have taken effect across the country. Among them are laws that censor school curriculum, ban gender transgender youth affirming care and target drag performances.

“Queer prom is joy, it’s a form of resistance,” Flores said.

Queer Prom was born out of a need for space that did not exist for youth from the LGBTQ+ community that was festive and embracing, as well as where they could find resources.

Jorge Valdivia, executive director of the Chicago Latino Theatre Alliance, and Tania Unzueta, political director of Mijente, came up with the idea. It was first promoted with the program Homofrecuencia, which began airing in 2002 and was produced by Valdivia, who was part of the Radio Arte team.

“We have to remember that back then, having a computer was not common in every home, and neither was internet access. When we started Homofrecuencia, it was to have a sense of community, to be part of something bigger and to feel connected,” Valdivia said.

“It wasn’t a party for adults, but for people seeing the event for the first time, they got a knot in their throat; they said it was the prom they never had, where they could be seen and feel welcome.”

Unzueta said in those early years, there were no spaces for the Latino LGBTQ+ community and the “queer prom” was the first she knew of.

“It was an open event for everyone of all races from all parts of the city; we thought it was important that it was at the museum, in Pilsen, to let the Latino community know that they are accepted, that an institution as important as the museum was willing to put resources into the community, that it wasn’t just a party, that there was a place to connect with resources,” she said.

For Valdivia, who after Radio Arte worked as director of performing arts at the museum, both Homofrecuencia and Queer Prom have been a movement that opened people’s eyes and changed public opinion in the Latino community to help create a more accepting environment for the LGBTQ+ community.

“We have to remember how dangerous it was to say, ‘I’m gay, I’m queer.’ That’s why Queer Prom is a way to make visible a community and all the brave souls who dared to express themselves as they are, because there is no change without them,” Valdivia said.

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