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Scenes From the Trans Protest Prom in Washington, D.C.

Joshua Glass

May 26, 2023

Daniel Trujillo, Libby Gonzales, Hobbes Chukumba, and Grayson McFerrin began this past Saturday evening like most teenagers do: debating music. “There’s a lot of Taylor Swift, like a lot,” belted out Gonzales, a 13-year-old Dallas-native sprawled on the carpet of a Washington, D.C. hotel room. “Oh I love Taylor,” McFerrin, 12, a fellow Texan, squealed with glee. “But there’s also David Bowie,” intervened Trujillo, 15, snatching the phone to scroll through their shared Spotify playlist. In his prismatic The Dark Side of the Moon tee, it was clear that the high school freshman from Tucson, Arizona, leaned toward the classics: “I wonder if we should add The Cranberries?” Duh, was the group’s census.

Every Gen Z-er knows the importance music has on cultivating the right “vibes,” as they’d say. But this particular curation was more significant than any that these four had ever put together before. Layered with tracks by queer icons, nostalgic power ballads, and dance-y anthems of resilience, the mix was a reflection of each of them, even if they didn’t think about it so explicitly. It was a culmination of their angers and their fears, their excitements and their anxieties. It was all the convulsing emotions that they, as four young transgender people in America, carry during a time in which their basic rights are not only being publicly questioned but constantly dismantled.

More than 500 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills have been introduced across the country since the start of this year. The record surpasses the last four years combined, and is one that rises with each passing day. This past Friday, for instance, Nebraska voted to become the 20th U.S. state to ban gender-affirming care for those under 18. Refusing healthcare is just one of the ways these legislative attacks target trans youth specifically; they also restrict their use of public bathrooms and limit their participation in sports, an important activity for adolescent socialization and development. “They’re trying to erase our existence completely,” said Trujillo somberly. “But the thing is, trans people have always existed, and we’re going to continue to exist.” 

Despite living hundreds of miles from one another, Trujillo, Gonzales, Chukumba, and McFerrin became connected through their parents, many of whom were part of the Human Rights Campaign’s Parents for Transgender Equality Council. As the damaging bills continued to populate, the foursome felt they needed to push back—not only for themselves but for those younger than them that these laws would harm even more. Since February, they’ve congregated weekly online, taking time between band practices and away from study groups to organize a grassroots initiative in this country’s capital. “It’s been a lot to handle,” said Chukumba, a 16-year-old who lives in New Jersey. The high school junior has been balancing grappling with the devastating legislation and his own call to arms for social justice with college prep and driving lessons. 

As the springtime fog dissipated across Capitol Hill Monday morning, a bedazzled sign emerged under a halo of sun. It stood atop a rose-covered stage on Union Square’s massive lawn, its letters in baby blues, pastel pinks, and crisp whites (the colors of activist Monica Helms’s 1999 Trans Flag) officially inaugurating the first-ever youth-led Trans Prom. More than 200 transgender people—ranging from ages five to 20 and hailing from over 18 states—joined the community event that flipped the annual marker of heteronormative adolescence on its head. “Prom is a space that normally makes LGBTQIA+ people feel unwelcome and unsafe,” explained Gonzales, who matched platform Converse high tops with a near-replica of the ruffled gothic gown Jenna Ortega wore in her viral Wednesday Addams dancing scene. “We wanted to change the narrative—to create our own version of a prom where everyone is accepted for who they are.”

The festivities kicked off with a Tunnel of Love, a nod to the event’s light ’70s theme. Chaperoning parents and attending trans adults—many of whom had never met each other offline before—led the way, standing shoulder-to-shoulder to form human archways in a physical symbol of love and support for the youth who pranced in between. “It was about joy first,” decreed Stormie Daie, a Durham, North Carolina–based drag queen who emceed the event. “It was about giving a place for the kids to come sparkle and shine—and the kids showed up. They showed up in outfits not even the Met Gala has seen.” 

She wasn’t the only one moved. “It was really beautiful that the youth were front and center,” said Raquel Willis, who refers to herself as “a protest auntie,” having previously served as the national organizer for the Transgender Law Center in addition to other organizations. “Oftentimes I think they can be an afterthought in our movement, but I was happy to see them showcasing themselves, and speaking about our struggles from their perspectives.” The activist and author was one of several guest speakers during the day in addition to organizer Adri Pérez and staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Chase Strangio, who also helped the organizers produce the event. 

For Lia Clay Miller, who captured these images exclusively for Vogue, the experience was eye-opening. “When I had started transitioning, many of these kids weren’t even born yet,” said the 32-year-old photographer, who remembers being taken to a therapist for assessment for gender identity dysphoria as a young child in North Carolina. “Being able to see my peers in a place where being trans was celebrated and not something looked down upon would have been an asset to my existence.” 

By lunchtime, it was time to move. The four organizers walked beside their guests down 3rd Street before turning down Constitution Avenue and wrapping around onto First. Sporting chartreuse-tinted heart-shaped glasses, McFerrin marched beside Gonzales, while Trujillo and Chukumba followed somewhere behind in impeccably-tailored suits with matching blue, pink, and white shoelaces peeking out underneath their trousers. “We were making history,” said Daie, who proudly kept her mic. “We tried to keep the energy from the dance floor to the polling floor.” Enclosed by posters that read “Trans Kids Have Always Existed” and “You Are Loved,” the parade made its final stop at the Supreme Court—a symbol of American freedom that has recently housed much hate directed toward these kids.  

Outside its sandstone rotunda, the prom’s committee remained hopeful. “I hope they see that our identities are something that are meant to be celebrated and not feared,” said Gonzales, referring to the lawmakers. Trujillo echoed her sentiment, returning to the group’s playlist from two nights before: “Our legislators, our senators, our representatives, they all have children and grandkids,” he said. “I’m really into Radiohead, right? Maybe one of their son’s or grandson’s is into Radiohead…” Before he could finish his point, Chukumba politely stepped in: “The ultimate statement is that trans people are people and that trans kids are kids,” he said. “These things that are being passed aren’t just hurting the trans community, they’re hurting people. Period.”

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