Every Wednesday for the past 10 weeks, a group of young people from all over Victoria has been gathering to practice their ballroom dancing skills in preparation for one of the most significant nights of their lives.
The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare debutante ball brings together young people aged between 16-25 who have lived in out of home care. Dressed up in sharp suits and white ball gowns, it’s a night where their achievements are celebrated in front of their family and carers as well politicians and community leaders.
While the night itself is the main event—the preparation involved for the debutante ball has been just as important.
Ball co-ordinator Erin Moloney has watched the group of 36 young people grow over the past few months as they've navigated dance lessons, fitting sessions and forging new friendships.
“It’s been quite wonderful to be a part of that, you start with week one when you’ve got a whole lot of young people who don’t know each other and then ten weeks on they’ve developed friendships, they’ve developed confidence, they’ve mastered dance moves,” Moloney tells SBS.
“The purpose of the deb ball is to celebrate young people and their individuality so they can be their true selves. And to give them that opportunity to express themselves, to be understood and have a wonderful time.”
"I felt whole"
It’s an opportunity that has an extra layer of significance for LGBT+ members of the cohort—including 23-year-old transgender woman, Queenie.
“For Queenie, this will be her first time being presented as female to a large group of people, so it’s quite powerful for her,” says Moloney.
Queenie picked out her dress with the help of Erin and some of the staff members from the Centre for Excellence.
“It was awesome,” Queenie tells SBS. “It felt so good and the staff were so friendly,” she says of trying on her corseted white gown with spaghetti straps.
“It was… I felt whole,” she says of the emotional experience.
Speaking ahead of the ball, Queenie says that she’s both excited and nervous.
“It means that I can finally feel like a woman.”
Dreaming of the future
In preparation for the big night, each of the debutantes was asked to write down some of their aspirations for the future—to be read out to the crowd at the Melbourne Town Hall as they make their debut.
“I wrote down that when I was younger, I wanted to be a princess and a ballerina,” she says.
“And then I wanted to be cancer research scientist. And then when I grew up, I decided that I wanted to be a social worker.” Queenie also wrote down that she hopes to transition by the time she’s 30.
For 23-year-old Lawrence, his dreams for the future reflected the ongoing same-sex marriage debate in Australia.
“I wrote on my aspirations that I want to one day find a partner and settle down with him and be able to have a legal marriage and be like everyone else,” he tells SBS.
Moloney says that the event is about the acceptance of “all young people”.
“So we’re a really strong advocate for the LGBTIQ Community,” she says. “We want young people to feel as though they can be their true selves."
The night of the debutante ball
Speaking to SBS the night after the ball, the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare’s CEO Deb Tsorbaris says the night was “incredible”.
“Lawrence and Queenie probably got the loudest applause in the room. We had the most diverse group of young people that we’ve ever had which I think is absolutely fantastic.
“Because what we’re trying to say is all young people belong," Tsorbaris tells SBS.
“They all made their beautiful debuts but both Lawrence, in terms of his call for marriage equality, and Queenie’s statement about transitioning got the most rousing rounds of applause.
“For both of them, I think that would have meant something significant to have the adults in the room supporting them with tears and claps…I think it would have meant a lot.”
Tsorbaris says the night isn’t about perfection, but about “being yourself and revelling in it.”
“What we try and tell these young people is, ‘It’s never too late—no matter what your experience has been— to enjoy and be included in all the sorts of things that young people are included in'.
“And it’s never too late to live your dreams.”