LGBTQ graduation party brings joy, repeat of dance many feared decades ago

Mel Weiss was filled with dread as his senior prom approached. He didn’t want anyone to know he was gay, so he brought a girl along as a date.

“This was a time when people weren’t coming out,” said Weiss, now 88. “I just felt uncomfortable.”

The gala evening was certainly not the formative experience he had envisioned.

But Weiss and hundreds of other gay seniors recently got the chance to relive their prom as their true selves.

Last week, the Los Angeles LGBT Center hosted its 27th annual Senior Prom event, inviting members of the LGBTQ+ community ages 50 and up to celebrate being gay, something many of them felt ashamed of as teenagers.

“A lot of our seniors grew up in a time when coming out was really hard. This was before same-sex marriage was even legal,” said Kiera Pollack, director of senior services at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

The June 28 event marked the end of Pride Month, which can sometimes be difficult for seniors to participate in.

“A lot of Pride celebrations aren’t necessarily the best for older people to go to and participate in,” said Pollack, who noted that Pride marches can be crowded and physically taxing. “It’s really important to feel like they can still celebrate that they’re part of the community.”

This year, more than 300 seniors dressed in gala attire and gathered at the Los Angeles Zoo for an evening of dinner and dancing. The gala — sponsored by the Angel City Football Club and Charlotte’s Web — is free and includes transportation, as well as assistance with outfits for seniors who can’t afford them. Most attendees are between the ages of 60 and 80.

Guests are welcome to bring a date if they wish, though many people — including Weiss — choose to come alone and socialize. Pollack said some people met new romantic partners at the prom.

“There were so many people who were so happy to be there and to be able to connect with each other,” Pollack said, noting that many of the seniors are not completely out in all aspects of their lives. “I saw a number of people who were able to just be themselves and kiss their partner and dance and feel connected … it was just beautiful.”

The seniors said they could feel the love in the room.

“We felt really good,” said Weiss, who has attended several senior proms over the years. He lives at Triangle Square Senior Apartments, which provides affordable housing for LGBTQ+ seniors and is owned and operated by the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Weiss grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and didn’t come out until 20 years ago. Before that, “I was out to my family and a few friends, but not really to everyone,” he said.

Weiss said meeting other gay seniors has helped him feel more comfortable in his own skin. Socializing at the senior prom is an annual highlight for him.

“It’s always a lot of fun,” he said. “We all felt really happy when we left.”

Weiss was crowned a “monarch” — a play on the prom king and queen concept — along with two other attendees. The crowns are given to the three oldest people there.

“We want to celebrate people as they age,” Pollack said.

Andre Simpson said he didn’t expect to get a second chance to go to prom, but he’s glad he did. He said the night was memorable and meaningful.

“When you see all that love, the couples kissing and the friends meeting up and celebrating just being yourself,” said Simpson, 67.

Nearly 50 years ago, he didn’t want to go to his senior prom, but he went to fit in, he said. “It wasn’t fun.”

“I just felt social pressure,” said Simpson, who took one of his female classmates to his senior prom. “I really didn’t want to go with a girl.”

Although Simpson’s senior prom wasn’t what he’d hoped for, his attendance at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s senior prom made up for it, he says.

“It’s an inoculation against the pain of the past, the pain of the past,” he said. “Many older people in the LGBTQ community have survived a lot, and yet their spirits are still happy. They are still joyful inside. They have not been destroyed by the disappointments of life.”

Bonding with other seniors in the LGBTQ community is “really a healing process,” said Simpson, who added that he plans to continue attending prom for years to come.

“It’s great to be in a place where you’re completely accepted for who you are,” he said.

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