While high school formals are often considered a rite of passage for young people, the experience can be isolating for queer teenagers when restrictions are placed on who they can bring or what they can wear.
It’s why youth-led LGBTI organisation Minus18 decided to create the Queer Formal—one night where teenagers are free to express— and celebrate— their identities.
Sixteen-year-old Josh Langsam—who features in a new Vice documentary about the event—has attended the annual formal twice so far and says stepping inside the St Kilda Town Hall “feels like you’re part of something great”.
“It’s a night where you can be who you are,” Langsam tells SBS.
“It’s a night to shine, not only in your queerness but your own personality. Everybody gets to be a bit extra and really stand out,” they say.
The event is a night for LGBT+ teenagers to truly be themselves—an opportunity that they might not have at a traditional high-school formal.
“Whereas you might stand out for a negative reason at a school formal—to me, at the queer formal it feels like I’m standing out for the good reasons and it’s quite lovely,” the 16-year-old says.
Langsam adds that being able to celebrate with hundreds of queer young people under one roof is a significant boost for anyone who’s ever felt isolated because of their gender or sexual identity.
“I remember when I realised I was queer in Year 6 or 7, I didn’t even think there were other queer people or…I knew that there were but they seemed unattainable,” they say.
“You hear that it’s one in ten, but to me, it felt like one in every hundred thousand people was queer.
“I feel like if you’re a young person coming to the queer formal and you look around and see 500 people similar to you– that is just eye-opening. “
The Queer Formal was first held in 2010, at a time when then there was “a lot of media coverage surrounding same-sex couples not being able to take their partner to the formal,” says Minus18 CEO Micah Scott.
“We thought, well we want everyone to be able to have that experience,” Scott tells SBS.
“A school formal is a real rite of passage and it’s such a positive event. People were actively avoiding that, they were missing out on something special.”
Scott adds that events like the Queer Formal are crucial for LGBT+ young people—especially when their lives and experiences are being discussed by politicians and in the media.
“Even before the postal survey, we had the Safe Schools coverage as well,” says Scott.
“The common theme is that queer young people are being spoken about, but not spoken to and 14, 15, 16-year-old queer people are some of the most engaged, active, opinionated people that I’ve ever met.
“And they have so much to say and have such unique experiences and it’s frustrating for them to have all of these conversations going on about them.
“These sorts of events are a binding community moment for them. They’re such a celebration. It’s really tipping the narrative on its head.”
You can check out the Vice doco below: