The Emily Post Institute on etiquette offers updated advice on how to troubleshoot modern-day "prom-blems," but remains silent on the formal dance dilemmas that today's gay youth face.
Proms rarely attract protestors, for example, but Thomas "Cory" Corwin Montgomery Rainier, 19, is ready. Rumors had been circulating about demonstrators crashing the May 10 Hollywood Glam Alternative Prom, hosted by the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth. So he alerted local police and helped coordinate a chaperone-staffed security detail should any crashers materialize.
"We're hoping they get arrested," Rainier says, smiling. The youth group has held dances before, but this is its first public prom.
After dinner with a group at Fan restaurant Sticky Rice, he rolls into the red, black and gold vestibule of First Unitarian Universalist Church near Byrd Park wearing a suit with a mandarin collar. His date, Aaron, had one to match. Rainier's childhood best friend, David, and his girlfriend, Kimberly, are among several straight couples in the mix.
Inside, the latest Top 40 hits thump on the dance floor and boys -- and some girls boogie with varying degrees of self-consciousness. Still, the air is charged with secrecy. Some youth aren't out to their parents. Others maintain a delicate limbo in which only half the family knows. Greg Harman, the group's youth program director, says etiquette's been developed to protect that balance.
"A lot of it revolves around identification and public outings," Harman says. The DJs announce that there will be photography and people who want to avoid pictures should stay to one side of the room. Sometimes at conferences, name tags will come with stickers for people whose attendance is a secret.
Rainier's mom, Mary, an elementary school librarian and prom chaperone, says she's become an alternative adult figure to many teenagers whose parents are less accepting.
"It seems society as a whole is either accepting or tolerant," she says, "but individually being at home for these kids is really rough."
She's become a sounding board as youth deal with some dramatic reactions from their parents, such as one mom's idea to buy her seemingly gay son a rubber vagina.
"That just infuriated me that she thought disembodied body parts would be more alluring to a boy who was gay," she says. "That's not the way you say a woman has a lot to offer."
Sometimes the etiquette questions bleed into ethics. Earlier in the evening, Mary fields a call from a parent who couldn't find her son. The boy had come along to the dance, but wasn't out to his parents.
If it had been a gay pride parade or political event, she says, it would have been different, but there were plenty of straight couples there and the boy could dance with whomever he wanted.
"I was completely honest with them," she says.
She told the other mom her son was at a church dance.