When I covered the 1998 story “Lesbian Teens Turn Heads at Small-Town Prom,” I remember feeling especially moved by the courage of a teenage lesbian couple from Colon, Michigan, population 500. Mandi Milliman, 17, and Dawn Johnson, 18, dared to attend their high school prom as a same-sex couple, despite resistance from the principal and teachers.
The teens did not know it at the time, but they likely ended up helping other gay teens feel brave enough to attend their own senior proms. In 1998, hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people were prevalent, especially in small towns like Colon. Yet despite this, the young lesbian couple still made a decision to show up together at the prom, one in an evening gown, the other in a tuxedo. According to Johnson at the time, she was the first student to come out at her school, but added that three others came out after she did. Perhaps she really did light the way for others?
Today at many schools in Michigan and throughout the U.S., being an LGBTQ+ high school student is often welcomed and embraced. At other schools, even now, LGBTQ+ kids still feel they have to stay in the closet or endure a backlash from homophobic students, teachers and staff.
Prom can be tough for queer kids, both back then and today. Like Milliman and Johnson back in 1998, taking a same-sex date or dressing in a way that expresses one’s identity is not always accepted. In 1998, gay couples were often told they could not attend their prom as same-sex couples. And while Milliman and Johnson certainly faced opposition (from the principal primarily), I am sure that they felt lucky they were allowed to attend at all.
Fast forward a few decades to Traverse City, when a 2019 a Queer Prom was held. LGBTQ+ high school students and their allies were welcomed to the event. Held for the first time in 2014, the dance was staged to help students have a memorable prom experience, which they likely did not have during high school.
While life is better today for LGBTQ+ kids than it was for Milliman and Johnson, Queer Prom events continue to be held, including recently in Marquette. While I believe we have come a long way since 1998, it is still not far enough. From what I can see, schools are not always doing everything necessary to provide a safe environment for students to be themselves.
One trend has continued for as long as I can remember: When it comes to mental health, LGBTQ+ students are still struggling more than their peers.
More than 80 percent of high school students who identify as LGBTQ+ cited depression, stress or anxiety as obstacles to learning last school year, compared to 40 percent of non-LGBTQ+ kids who reported such struggles. These stats are according to the YouthTruth survey, which was taken by more than 220,000 students during the 2021-22 school year. From elementary to high school, boys were more likely than girls and nonbinary students to report feeling happy.
I wish I could report that our prom couple, Milliman and Johnson, went on to conquer more bigotry and ultimately flourish during the 25 years since I interviewed them. It was a quarter of a century ago, however, and like most of the people in the stories I did for BTL, I did not stay in touch.
My biggest hope, as future generations of high schoolers come of age and become parents themselves, is that life will continue to get better for LGBTQ+ teens.