On September 22, 2010, Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate live streamed his very first gay date.

It was an event that stuck with Holly Atkins, who grew up in New York City and recalls seeing the bridge from the window of her home. When she went to sleep, the memory of Clementi stayed with her, as did the deaths of LGBTQ+ youth she learned of through media reports and the countless others that were never publicized. 

“[Clementi] hadn’t come out to anyone, including his parents, so [the live stream] was a very traumatic thing for him to find,” Atkins says. 

But it was Clementi’s death that motivated Atkins to start Hope For Teens, an antibullying nonprofit that works to advocate for and support LGBTQ+ youth just like him. 

“I told my husband I wanted to volunteer at some place that helps kids,” Atkins says. “He said OK, and I did a search as far as nonprofits and youth nonprofits, and there were none for Wake County. So, I went back to my husband two days later and said, ‘We don’t have any, I’m starting one.’”

Atkins sketched out the name, logo, and catchphrase on a napkin, and Hope For Teens was born.

Drawing inspiration from Durham’s iNSIDEoUT, a youth-led nonprofit for queer teens, Atkins collaborated with the organization and used it as a reference to shape her group.

“Seeing the work that iNSIDEoUT has done in Durham over the last 13 years … I enjoy the confidence that those kids have,” Atkin says. “To come, be among their peers, celebrate themselves, it takes a lot of courage. There’s closed-minded people who just want to shut down that kind of freedom and confidence for no reason.”

The Hope For Teens Queer Prom

These days, Hope For Teens frequently visits middle school and high school Gay Straight Alliance meetings to let students know they have their support. After one of these meetings last April, Atkins overheard members discussing why they weren’t planning to attend their schoolwide prom. 

“They were like, ‘Oh, are you going to prom?’ And the other said, ‘No, like, why would I go to prom with people who made my life hell for the last four years?’” Atkins says. 

Atkins suggested going to Queer Prom to the students, and they told her they didn’t have one. 

“That spoke volumes to me,” Atkins said. She asked if there was anything for queer students, and they told her no.

“And I said, ‘There will be next year.’”

Atkins and her team of five board members and three student ambassadors worked to ensure every vendor they partnered with for Queer Prom was part of the LGBTQ+ community. She wants the teens to see the various industries and areas they can work in, she says, so they know they can be LGBTQ+ and be an integral part of society. 

The theme for this year’s prom is Superheroes Among Us, Atkins says, as she feels every teen should be celebrated for their bravery in being who they are. Every sponsorship level for vendors who donate to the prom is a different superhero that is part of the queer community. 

The prom won’t cost students any money to attend. Students register, and their friends as allies are also encouraged to join. 

Drake Gomez, a student ambassador at NC State University for Hope For Teens, has helped the organization raise awareness for the Queer Prom.

Gomez created a list of LGBTQ+-friendly or LGBTQ+-centered organizations, groups, and businesses for Hope For Teens to potentially partner with. He facilitated conversations with the nonprofit and these groups to see if they could sponsor, volunteer, or contribute to the event in any way. 

Gomez says the nonprofit’s mission and values sparked his interest in being an ambassador of Hope For Teens. 

“I believe in what [Atkins] is trying to accomplish,” Gomez says. “And with her connections to the [LGBTQ+] community, as far as in education, in high schools, and now, even in college, I think she’s going to have reach to a massive amount of students in the [LGBTQ+] community that hasn’t been seen before.” 

Advocacy for LGBTQ+ youth: What could Queer Prom mean for them?

Atkins says events like the Queer Prom in Wake County means queer teens are finally being seen, validated, and celebrated as who they are. Queer Prom isn’t a completely novel idea—the LGBTQ+ advocacy nonprofit Equality NC hosted a similar event last fall, but only for adults over 21 who didn’t get to experience their prom the way they would have wanted to. But without a celebration of and for queer students from their local school districts, the Queer Prom is filling a void for local teens.

Atkins says that the teens seeing the vendors who are LGBTQ+ give them a sense of community. She says Hope For Teens anticipates hosting this prom every year from now on in the first weekend of June, for the beginning of Pride Month. 

“Having the chaperones be from various different industries, backgrounds, hopefully opens up the conversation more for people to say, ‘Wait a minute, like, we just had, you know, gender-affirming care needs be banned in [our state] politics,’” Atkins says. “Why are we not reporting on the good news that trans kids are being celebrated for who they are?” 

After the prom, Gomez says he hopes queer youth throughout the county and beyond see the support the community has in Raleigh. He wants the teens to know that there’s a larger community for them outside of their hometowns, and there will always be advocates fighting for them. 

Even though the Queer Prom is happening in Wake, Atkins and the rest of Hope For Teens encourages students from all counties in North Carolina to attend if they can.

Hope for Teens Queer Prom takes place on Friday, June 2 at the North Raleigh Hilton from 6 p.m. until midnight. Support Hope for Teens and their first Queer Prom at their GoFundMe page.

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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