A chance to 'be yourself'

Tuesday May 4, 2010

PITTSFIELD -- A group of city teenagers are inviting young people across the region to enjoy an evening of being "out" and about.

The Live Out Loud Youth Leadership Project of Western Massachusetts is promoting an event called "Crooked," a semiformal ball which will be held at Jae's Spice on Friday, May 14. This event is free and open for youth identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning (LGBTQ), as well as their straight friends. The group believes it's the first youth event of its kind to be held in the county.

"We wanted to have a dance where you can be yourself and have fun," said Tiffani White, a student of the Pittsfield Adult Learning Center and a Live Out Loud member.

"This ball is purposely being launched during prom season to offer an additional venue for LGBTQ kids and allies to go to feel safe. Our dance aims to provide an avenue where couples of all types can be celebrated in a safe setting," said Kelly Shuff-Heck, who co-advises the Live Out Loud Youth group.

Incidentally, the event planning comes during a time where opposition to same-sex couples at school dances have made international headlines. Back in March, Constance McMillen, a lesbian high school student from Mississippi, was told she would be denied entrance to her school prom when it was found out she wanted to don a tuxedo and bring a female date.

McMillen and the American Civil Liberties Union took the Itawamba County School District to court, and a judge ruled the school could not bar. Instead of complying, the school district canceled the prom outright.

The issue grew more controversial when private events were held last month to replace the canceled prom. McMillen was directed to a country club where she was among seven students who showed up. School officials were also there as chaperones. But the rest of her schoolmates partied at another location to which McMillen said she was not invited.

In Berkshire County, however, proms and school-sponsored dances have been generally tolerant of same-sex couples.

"A lot of people now at our school really don't care about whether your gay," said Mara Del Soldato, a Pittsfield High School freshman and member of the school's GSA.

"For the most part, people accept each other," said Karolina Kolodziej, also a PHS freshman who is helping to plan the ball with her boyfriend at her side.

"We're really proud of that," said Sara Shuff-Heck, a co-adviser to the Live Out Loud Youth group.

In addition to the youth group using funds for the ball, the event has received support from Jae's Spice, PHS and Berkshire County Kid's Place. Fliers for the upcoming semi-formal dance have been found from Pittsfield High School to Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, where a student is also working to start a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). Kate Hanley Merrigan, coordinator of North Adams' United, Neighboring, Interdependent, Trusted Youth (UNITY) Youth Development Program said she is giving up her Friday night to bring two minivan loads of students to the event.

"Having LGBTQA events has been a big theme for our students in the last year or so. The students up here are so excited about this," said Merrigan.

Still, the youth group members say there aren't many events or activities that are specifically promoted as being openly welcoming of LGBTQ youths, nor do such events bring together students from the various Berkshire County schools.

"There's still some division. It would be great for the community to be more supportive and to get more schools to plan things together," said Max Pastore, a senior at St. Joseph Central High School.

Often, local students have to travel to Boston for LGBTQ youth events. This Friday, for example, several students and chaperones will be traveling there on Saturday to take part in Massachusetts Youth Pride events.

"The way I see it," said student Tiffani White, "the more we end up having these kinds of events, the more people will stand up and out. People are still afraid of what they don't know about."


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