Gay teen couples have schools thinking differently about prom
By Erika Wurst email@example.com May 14, 2011 8:26PM
Jake Rosko (left) poses with his friend Jackson Smith before going to Kaneland's 2011 prom.
Updated: September 29, 2011 12:36AM
Two weeks before the Kaneland High School prom, juniors Jake Rosko and Jackson Smith walked into a DeKalb tuxedo shop to have their waists measured and heights taken — as hundreds of male students have been doing this month at stores across the Fox Valley.
Only, instead of carrying a colored swatch of his date’s dress, all Rosko had to do was look to Jackson for confirmation that the couple matched.
“We’re going (to prom) together,” Rosko, a platinum blond, told the shop employee when asked. Then came the giggles and stares.
“As soon as we went into the dressing room, everyone started to whisper,” Rosko said. “I think it’s funny how people can be so closed-minded.”
Rosko and Smith aren’t used to the overt discrimination that is often leveled at gay couples, especially teenagers. At Kaneland, where the couple of four months met, their relationship hardly elicits a second glance from students or administrators, he said.
So when they showed up to prom as a couple earlier this month — matching tuxedos and all — there was hardly a ripple in the crowd.
Stopping by the florist to pick up matching boutonnieres elicited more stares than his grand entrance at the dance, Rosko said. And that is no surprise.
According to Kaneland Assistant Principal Diane McFarlin, the small Kane County school has strived to promote tolerance and acceptance during recent years. When she began her job as assistant principal six years ago, McFarlin said, the cultural climate of Kaneland was not what it is today. Bullying and intolerance were rampant, and administrators decided something must be done.
Through educational talks, the creation of a Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA), and the administration’s promotion of diversity, “students learned what it truly means to accept and be tolerant of people they may not understand,” she said.
“It’s like any civil rights movement. The issue starts pretty radically. Ten years ago, it was radical to have same-sex couples go to prom ... today there are absolutely no limitations.”
Students such as Smith and Rosko are reaping the rewards.
“Kaneland is very, very open (when it comes to gay and lesbian couples),” he said. As an actor, dancer, singer, Lady Gaga fan and a fashion fanatic, Rosko admits he fits the “stereotype.”
“I don’t mind,” he said as he sipped on a milkshake at McDonald’s in Elburn last week.
“I like to express myself in every way possible.”
This, according to Rosko, includes being honest about who he is. He described coming out to his mother in eighth grade as a “huge relief.”
“I hated trying to look like someone I wasn’t,” he said. “(Being gay) is not who I am entirely, but it’s a big part of my personality.”
For Rosko, Kaneland is the perfect place to be himself. As for his prom? Well, it was picture perfect.
At other Fox Valley schools, including Oswego High and Waubonsie Valley, students said the acceptance of same-sex couples is harder to come by. While there may not be strict policies in place preventing same-sex couples from attending dances together, there are unwritten laws to which students adhere.
Waubonsie junior Lauren Skowron said she knows lots of gay students — but none who are going to prom.
“They probably don’t want to get made fun of,” junior Martyna Bobek chimed in from across the food court table, where the friends had lunch together Monday. “If they did go, they’d probably go in a big group.”
While the gay/lesbian population at their high school isn’t large, the teenagers believe there are more same-sex couples openly dating than one might think.
Same goes for Oswego High School, said sophomore Katherine Hanna; but unlike at Kaneland, Oswego’s outed students aren’t as accepted as they should be, she said.
“Same-sex couples at our school aren’t really allowed,” Hanna said. Because of this, Hanna’s best friend declined the high school milestone of attending the annual prom.
He was afraid of the ridicule, she said, adding that even the task of a gay couple purchasing tickets is difficult.
That fact, said sophomore Kevin Warren, is a shame.
“Students who are gay should be more allowed to express it,” he said. “The student body as a whole could stand to learn a thing or two about diversity.”
A new club, catering to “gay (students), straight (students) and everything in between,” has been created to accommodate those struggling to fit in, Warren said.
“It’s there, but everyone makes fun of it,” Hanna added.
These tides have turned at Kaneland, where the school’s GSA has more straight members than gay ones, and where this year’s elected homecoming king was gay.
“This is where changes happen,” McFarlin said proudly of her student body, “when kids who are diverse have a clear understanding of their inherent rights to be active members of their school.”
McFarlin said that if schools aren’t jumping on board to promote tolerance and diversity, they should be.
District U46 in Elgin has a “very open policy” regarding prom and gay couples, said spokesman Tony Sanders.
“There is nothing that would prevent or prohibit any couple from attending prom, even if they were the same sex,” he said. Many self-identified straight teens often attend the dance with members of their own sex, he noted, adding that same-sex couples are rarely ever pinpointed or noticed.
At some high schools — including Proviso East in Maywood, where a female student was denied the right to wear a tuxedo to prom — things aren’t so cut and dried.
Earlier this year, senior Belinda Sanchez contacted the American Civil Liberties Union regarding the school’s policy requiring girls to wear dresses to the prom.
ACLU lawyers cautioned the school’s principal and district administrator against discriminating on the basis of gender. Sanchez eventually was allowed to come dressed as she pleased.
“Schools like that are run by administrators that don’t have open minds,” Rosko said. “Its mind-blowing to me. (Kaneland’s) administration is different. It encourages acceptance and tolerance.”
Even the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance is composed of mostly heterosexual students looking to promote diversity, he noted. Eric Eichelberger, Rosko’s best friend, is a junior, and he’s straight.
It’s hard to say what the climate is at other local schools.
Communications directors for several districts — including Batavia and Oswego, Indian Prairie, Naperville’s District 203, East and West Aurora school districts and the Illinois Math and Science Academy — would not comment on the issue, or they simply said there are no policies in place to prevent students from attending together.
Each district declined to elaborate on measures they’re taking toward increased tolerance at the schools.
“People need to start stepping up and doing what’s right for the kids. The political piece of all of this is really tiresome,” McFarlin said. “People should be proud of the things they put into place if they’re doing it for the right of all students.”
And while things aren’t perfect at Kaneland, where bullying occasionally occurs, Rosko said he meshes flawlessly into the social scene, which is comprised of students from seven small towns.
“We aren’t the rural district we were 10 years ago,” McFarlin said. “We are a lot more suburban today.”
As the lights dimmed and the music slowed at the Northern Illinois University Student Center, where Kaneland students gathered for prom on April 30, Jake Rosko and Jackson Smith took to the dance floor.
As the two men embraced, several students began to stare. Some even made snide comments toward the dancing couple, Rosko said.
“To me and my boyfriend, we just blow it off. You can’t change the fact that people have their own opinions about things. It’s just a way of life.”
And that life, settled in the middle of a vast cornfield that is the backdrop to his school, is surprisingly good, Rosko said.
“If I wanted to show up (to prom) in a dress, I would get stared at,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be told not to.”