Taking a same gender partner or wearing new clothes can be AWESOME.
Formals and debutante balls become such a big deal towards the end of high school. There’s something pretty lush about getting dressed up, dancing and, if you followed my school’s instructions: “acting like adults for the first time in your life”. It’s amusing, given the fact that the night almost always ends up with a line of 17 year olds in tuxedos and puffy dresses waiting for a burger at McDonalds at the stroke of midnight.
Modern day fairy tale right here.
There’s a stack of tradition in these type events, and like most mainstream tradition, there’s a LOT of pressure to act a certain way (very proper, very composed, very cis and very straight). The partners we take and the clothes we want to wear are strongly linked to our sexuality and our gender identity; for us queers that can mean expressing ourselves in a way that makes us stand out or goes against tradition.
So if you want to be out and queer at your school formal or debutante, here’re some tips we’ve put together to make it an awesome night.
Know your rights
In Australia you have a right at government schools to not be discriminated against for your sexuality or gender. So this means being able to take a partner of any gender (when partners are allowed) and wearing clothes that fit your gender identity. If there is a public dress code, you’ll likely still need to abide by this, but when it is gendered (eg. Girls must wear dresses) you should in theory be able to abide by the dress code that best matches your gender identity.
Of course - It’s not always easy to champion your own identity at these sorts of events, especially if you’re not out. We know that just because legislation says something doesn’t mean that schools will always follow it - and it certainly doesn’t mean it automatically becomes safe for you.
If you’re not sure whether you should go queer at your formal, it helps to get support. This might be from a supportive teacher (like your wellbeing coordinator), your parents or a friend at school. It’s not essential at all - but having an ally and someone to bounce off for support can make it a lot easier.
Help organise the event
Getting on the planning committee for the formal or deb is a great way to ensure it’s safe for all students. You can help ensure that the dress code is gender neutral, and you can include additional information on the invitation (such as “partners of any gender are welcome at this event”).
A lot of formals have an awards ceremony. They can be tricky because there will always be people who miss out on them. If having awards is an important part of your event, you can help make sure the awards celebrate people and encourage diversity. Gender neutral awards like “cutest couple” instead of “formal queen” and “formal king” are more inclusive - and awards like “most fabulously dressed” encourage people to dress a bit different and break the mould which makes the dress styles more interesting.
Host a Pre-Party
It’s not always possible to get on the planning committee. So if you’re feeling a little nervous about going to the event, our favourite thing to do is plan a pre-party beforehand.
There’s more to the night than just sitting at a table eating. Getting ready together with a group is half the fun, and helps you relax and feel comfortable beforehand. If you’re bringing a partner from another school, it also means they have time to meet your group beforehand too, which will make them feel more comfortable.
Try organise a table together, so that you’re always surrounded by people who support you.
You don’t have to go
Remember, you don’t have to go if you don’t feel safe or comfortable. Don’t get too caught up in the pressure of the event. It’s a nice evening, but it’s certainly not the be-all and end-all of high school experiences. There are stacks of formal style events in your future - weddings, dances and functions where you’ll likely feel safer to express yourself.
If you’re in Melbourne or Adelaide, there’s also the Minus18 Queer Formal every year, which is 100x better than a school formal anyway ;)