- Associated Press - Saturday, May 20, 2017

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - The emails - tinged with both sadness and hope - started pouring in almost immediately.

Hareena Houston, Evie Kortanek and several other students at the Wilmington Friends School had announced they were organizing an LGBT+ dance on May 20. Open to all New Castle County high schoolers, it would provide a place for same-sex and gender-queer couples to safely dance the night away in the company of their peers.

“My daughter cried when her teacher told her about this,” one mom told Houston in an email.

One man, who said he was trans, quickly volunteered to help in any way he could. He wished something like this had existed when he was a teen.

Virginia DeWees, who graduated from Wilmington Friends in 2012 and now works in the school’s Office of Alumni Development, volunteered to be a chaperone. She invited her girlfriend of 10 months, Rebecca Neill, to be her date in an elaborate “promposal” and scavenger hunt.

“She had never been asked to prom before,” she said.

For many students in New Castle County, going to a school dance with their partner of choice may not seem like an option, Houston said. Even at schools that allow same-sex couples to attend school dances together, the idea can be frightening, especially to those still questioning their sexuality or who have not come out to family or friends.

“I have friends from (other schools) who told me they could not bring dates of the same sex to prom,” Houston said, explaining the inspiration for “Dance Louder and Prouder,” the event to be held on Saturday.

“We want people to know there’s someone who’s going to help them and be there for them.”

The event is completely student-led, said Kathleen Martin, director of College Guidance at Friends, but has been supported by the school. Both the school’s QUEST Center (Quaker Center for Understanding, Engagement and Stewardship) and its student government body contributed money to the event so ticket prices could stay low and as many people as possible could attend.

Martin said the Friends school has a history of being accepting and that students there can already bring same-sex partners to school dances.

“But just because our school’s super inclusive, doesn’t mean all schools in Delaware are,” Houston said.

Fellow student and junior Klara Lenges agreed.

“We’re privileged to have the ability to do this at our school,” she said.

The school also has an active Gender Sexuality Association or GSA with about 40 members. Plans for the dance have spurred discussion throughout the school and surrounding community not only by LGBT+ rights but how the school can be even more accepting.

For some students, like Lenges, who identifies as straight, the dance is a way to make sure that teens throughout the county have the freedom to be themselves.

“It’s an opportunity for some to really enjoy themselves in a situation that is safe and happy,” she said.

And for Serena Gutsche, a junior, it’s a way to offer to support to students who may be going through periods of great indecision or doubt.

“The thing is I have a lot of friends who are a part of the LGBT community and a lot of their families don’t accept them at all,” she said. “Some have even tried to commit suicide.”

Katrina Nix, a sophomore, said it’s sad some teens don’t have the option to be themselves.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “It makes me furious.”

It will be students like Houston, Kortanek, Gutsche, Lenges and Nix that will change the world, DeWees said.

Wilmington Friends had a GSA when she went to school there, too, she said, but “it wasn’t as visible as this club is.”

“I wasn’t even really looking for spaces like that,” she added. “I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with it. I thought it had to be a secret, private thing.”

“Even in the past five years, things have changed so dramatically. It makes me feel a little bit better about myself.”

Today, she’s excited to attend her first school dance with the partner of her choice. Have positive role models from the LGBT community at the dance is important, she said, so kids can feel comfortable being themselves.

“I’m really excited that the kids have the courage and energy and passion to create a big event like this for New Castle County,” she said. “It’s going to give them the tools and skills they need to be good social advocates, advocates for social change.”

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Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com

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