RIVERVIEW — By the time prom rolled around, Tyler and Moses had been official for exactly two weeks.
They hadn’t been to prom before. They hadn’t been on a date yet, either, but when they got the notice for the LGBTQ+ dance for Tampa Bay teens, it was all the boys could talk about.
Their friendship had spanned the last two years, after they met in a Gaither High School theater class, but romance was new terrain. Moses, 15, declared his interest over a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, so nervous he kept backtracking. But Tyler, 16 and more experienced in love, helped Moses through.
Moses keeps the anniversary date written on a piece of loose-leaf paper. It’s a tip he’d gotten from Tyler before they had started dating, back when he was interested in a different boy at school: “Keep track of the important things,” Tyler had said.
On Friday, the couple arrives at Pride Prom at golden hour, as billowy trees melt into an orange sherbet sky. Moses’ dad is in the driver’s seat. He reminds them to take pictures.
As they enter the venue, past the table with Spanish-style hand fans and pocket-sized flags of all different stripes, a tingling feeling pulses deep in their guts. They’re delighted, but cautious.
Tyler is trans and growing up in Florida.
He’s learned, since he first began taping and binding his chest about five years ago, that the world is not always a welcoming place. His mother worries about him, about the people who might cause him harm. She’s constantly reminding him to stick by friends, and to watch over his drink.
But as Moses and Tyler walk toward the sound of music, they’re met with smiling faces.
A sign for the toilets reminds them: “We don’t care which bathroom you use, just wash your hands.”
Tension releases. This space is safe.
One by one, teens shuffle into the stately ballroom in Riverview, pausing at a mirror in the lobby for a last-minute fit check.
Hoops in place. Foundation fresh. They feel good.
Inside are rows of tables, draped in royal purple satin and sprouting elaborate flower arrangements.
Skinny legs in combat boots and hand-painted dress shoes timidly bop on the sparsely populated dance floor. It’s early, still, and the night is long. Nobody’s ready to fully commit.
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Keatyn Horton, 18, spots a problem. One of the gold candelabras isn’t lit.
In a black shoulder cape and platform boots, Keatyn glides to its rescue and twists the bulbs at the end of each candlestick until they glow like flames.
Much better. If you’re going to throw a party, you better do it right.
This is their Met Gala. The theme is French Renaissance. Vive La Fierté. Long Live Pride.
Keatyn is one of a handful of local teens who was charged with organizing the event for the LGBTQ+ community. Hosted by PFLAG Riverview — a group that supports parents and families of young queer people around Tampa Bay — the prom is held annually to provide a space to connect. For months, the teens met on Thursdays, brainstorming vendors, decorations, mapping out the details.
Last year’s prom didn’t have enough gluten-free or vegan options. This year, they’d make sure there were plenty. At last year’s prom, the music was too loud. This year, they’d find the perfect volume.
Keatyn scans the room, taking stock. This time last week, Keatyn, who is nonbinary, had stood in this very event space for the Lennard High School senior prom.
At 6′3″, with lash extensions, wine-red lipstick and a sparkling dress, Keatyn stood out. It was a fine time. Just fine. But tonight, nobody would stare or judge or eyeroll.
Around 7:30 p.m., the tinkling piano intro to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” flows through the speaker system, triggering a collective squeal.
The teens charge the dance floor. They toss their heads back and belt every word to the 2002 ballad — a song released before any of them were born.
Keatyn plays air piano. A girl in a Marie Antoinette pouf wig fights to keep it on while dancing.
For a night, they are untouchable.
In fishnets and Doc Martens, pink ballgowns and chunky heels, corsets and ruffled hoop skirts, goth cargo pants and rainbow sequined vests, they throw their hands in the air toward a tiered chandelier and howl.
They twirl and jump, hip-pop and shimmy to Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, David Bowie and Queen.
Some brush hands with their dates, nervously at first, then burst into laughter and pull each other close. Others pool with a group of friends. They snack on candy laid out like charcuterie and snap selfies.
There’s a weightlessness so palpable, it seems plausible that — like the astronaut carrying a rainbow flag, projected on the wall — they’ll soon break loose from the confines of gravity.
For the next three hours the floor is a blur of color.
This is a night of firsts. First dance, first date, first time using she/her pronouns.
First time, in a long time, without bearing the responsibility of fighting for a more just world.
When a nervous system is used to operating in fight-or-flight mode, there’s a delay between the mind and the body. You can know that you’re safe, without feeling it in your bones.
But in this space, among more than a hundred kindred peers — they feel safe in their bodies, too.
On Monday, they’ll get back to organizing protests and walkouts at their high schools. They’ll get back to work defending themselves before the people elected to represent them, who — this past legislative session — passed a record number of bills targeting their very community.
They’ll remind each other to practice empathy for bullies — classmates who have learned to hate because of things they’ve heard their parents say. They’ll shoulder the weight of “being the bigger person.”
But that’s later.
Right now, they’re doing the YMCA. The Wobble. The Cupid Shuffle.
They’re taking off their shoes so they can sprint — then stop — and send their socks sliding across the polished floors.
They’re throwing back cup after cup of watermelon punch in pursuit of a sugar high.
To connect with PFlag Riverview, visit https://pflagriverview.org/