Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With the music pumping and the costumes in full regalia, residents of western Montana gathered over the weekend at the Missoula County Fairgrounds for the second annual Queer Prom Montana.

In a state where the political majority has cracked down on the freedoms once enjoyed by the LGBTQ+ community, the chance to dance and mingle in a safe and supportive atmosphere drew hundreds of participants from all identities.

“Things are now seen in a brand new light for a lot of people,” said Naomi Gerheim. “The hate is much more visible now. I'm straight and I identify with the gender assigned to me at birth. But I have so many friends and see so many people who are part of this community, and I don't have the capability to understand why they're seen as being different than anybody else.”

Gerheim, who is one of the event's many sponsors, said Queer Prom Montana started two years ago after “the stuff that happened at Florence Carlton Middle School.”

That “stuff” involved a 12 year-old girl who approached the school board hoping to start a Gay-Straight Alliance club, or GSA. The request wasn't well received and drew sharp community backlash, driven in part by members of “Stand Together for Freedom.”

Despite the organization's name, it opposed the freedom of a girl looking to start an informal club with her friends at her school.

“We realized what a large number of queer youth there were down the Bitterroot and in Missoula that don't have a safe place,” said Gerheim. “We needed to give these kids that prom experience that every kid deserves.”

After the events in Florence, the Montana Human Rights Network said they saw a correlation in the uptick of LGBTQ youth calling in to its crisis hotline.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr addresses Queer Prom Montana attendees. (Courtesy photo)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr addresses Queer Prom Montana attendees. (Courtesy photo)

The mental health of Montana's queer community also took center stage during the Legislative session, where the Republican majority banned Rep. Zooey Zephyr from the House floor after she warned them of the impacts their votes will have on Montana's queer youth.

Zephyr, the first openly transgender member of Montana's legislature, was crowned prom queen on Friday night.

“Hey Missoula, it's good to be home,” Zephyr told the crowd. “There was a lot of cruelty in the session, but there was also such a clear amount of support and love. We keep saying that trans people have been in Montana long before this place was called Montana. We will be here long after these heinous bills are in the dust bin of history.”

Those at the prom all spoke about the treatment of the Legislature and the number of bills it passed that impact the queer community. Their fight for equality still has a steep hill to climb in Montana, they believe.

“What our Legislature did to Zooey wasn't right. She's representing the Missoula community and our district, and it felt like our voice was getting shut up,” said prom attendee “Bark.”

“We'll come back strong,” he added. “She still has our support 100%. She has my vote for the next session. Hopefully we can pull through this and she can represent the trans and gay community and be our voice.”

Bark attended the prom dressed in a dog costume. He was connected by a leash to his partner, Bruiser, who plays the alpha male in a relationship they refer to as “puphood.” The couple owns and operates the Bark and Bruiser Cafe in Missoula and put down the cash to sponsor this year's prom.

Bruiser believes the older generation of lawmakers is holding back the progress of society and the equality that younger generations seek. In that sense, he said, it's just a matter of time before things change.

“We have a new generation that's coming up to be who they want to be. But we're still outnumbered by the older generation who is one-sided and only believes one way,” said Bruiser. “Until things change and can be judged in a different way, we're stuck in a rut. But we're almost there.”

Bark and Bruiser, left, join Cody, right, and Queer Prom Montana emcee Reid Riemers. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Bark and Bruiser, left, join Cody, right, and Queer Prom Montana emcee Reid Riemers. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

This year's Queer Prom Montana drew strong participation from the Bitterroot Valley, including Kelsey Tha. The bisexual woman said some of the valley's residents aren't kind to the LGBTQ+ community, especially if one of its members are identified.

Tha also remembered the events at Florence Carlton and sees Queer Prom Montana as a safe place to relax with open-minded people from different backgrounds.

“The Bitterroot is a dark place to be queer,” said Tha. “There are secret GSA groups that people meet at because they're too scared to be out in public. We had a lot of parents emailing us telling us their kids were depressed and this (prom) was something they looked forward to.”

After the Florence incident and the reaction it drew from some community members, Tah said kids in the Bitterroot “are scared of violence.”

Arie McLaughlin, the brother of that 12 year-old girl who attempted to start a GSA group in Florence, said his Bitterroot community is “not a super accepting community for LGBTQ.”

His sister, who goes by Wilson, now attends Hellgate High School in Missoula. It's made a difference in his sister's life, McLaughlin said.

“She kept trying – she's a really smart person,” he said. “I was raised to accept LGBTQ. There's never been a thought in my head that my sister is queer. My sister is just my sister to me. In some ways we lost friends over it, but we do have some supporters down there.”

Queer Prom Montana 2023