Queer Ball in Cortez unites LGBTQ+ youth
In many ways, it was like any other high school mixer. Kids posed in a photo booth and played video games while chaperones supervised and restocked pizza and juice. The costumes might have been a little more colorful and over-the-top, including a few extravagant dresses.
But when the dance floor filled up during “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga, it was apparent that queer anthems were the soundtrack for this group of teenagers.
About 35 middle and high school kids turned out for the Queer Ball, which was held recently at ZU Gallery, a small art space on Cortez's Main Street.
“It's a normal event,” said Jodi Jahrling, the owner of ZU Gallery. “There's nothing abnormal about it. It should happen all the time.”
But this kind of event does not always happen in Cortez, where transphobia and homophobia have infiltrated local politics.
Organizers planned the event behind closed doors. Montezuma Youth Pride coordinated rides, discreetly distributed parental permission slips, and kept the location under wraps.
“It shouldn't have to be done so secretively,” said Gina Lopez, an organizer with Montezuma Youth Pride. “A lot of planning and coordinating went into making tonight happen. It would be really great to be able to do this more openly.”
Lopez brought her child, Vance House, a 6th grader at Cortez Middle School.
“(The Queer Ball) allows people to express themselves. If they can’t do it at home, they can do it here,” said House.
A battleground for queer rights
People who identify as LGBTQ don’t always get a warm welcome in Cortez, which has become a battleground over self-expression and queer rights in recent years.
Candidates have made transphobic statements in municipal elections. Lance McDaniel, an LGBTQ-friendly school board member, was recalled in 2021. When conservative community members campaigned against a middle school club for queer youth, the Cortez Middle School board declared lunchtime ‘instructional time.’ The decision effectively ended the ability for an LGBTQ+ lunch group, called the Rainbow Club, to meet.
As queer teens have lost safe spaces to gather and socialize, community groups and concerned parents realized they would need to create new ones.
“Instead of just allowing that club to happen, they actually blocked other clubs from happening,” said Nicola Shanks, a Queer Ball chaperone who also helps organize LGBTQ lunch groups at nearby schools.
“Events like this are a safe space for youth to come together. I'm seeing people from different schools meeting each other and friendships being built. Kids are not feeling isolated. ”
But for some, the Queer Ball is more than an opportunity for social connection; it’s a way to promote self-love and well-being.
“When I came out in the early '80s, I ended up out of the house out of high school,” said Sand Haley, a Montezuma Youth Pride volunteer and administrator at Fort Lewis College
“When young people receive a lot of negative messages about who they are, it has a tendency to really undermine one sense of self. Studies show that even having one accepting adult in a young trans person's life cuts the risk of suicide by 50%. And that is something that's preventable.”
But it was all positive vibes on that particular night in Cortez’s Zu Gallery. As DJ Lacy McKay kicked off another set of dance tunes, it was clear teens felt safe to be themselves, with the support of trustworthy adults and some great music.
This story was published as part of the project Voices From the Edge of the Colorado Plateau. It seeks to cover underrepresented communities in the Four Corners. KSUT provides editing and web production for the project and its stories.
Copyright 2023 Four Corners Public Radio. To see more, visit Four Corners Public Radio.