These high school students threw an LGBTQ prom that few will forget.

Prom night for Blair Smith didn’t begin in a stretch limo. It started with a broken down car in a high school parking lot and a ticking clock.

Smith had spent the last four weeks pulling together the dance amid a punishing schedule that included fundraising, advertising, and studying for AP exams. Now he had chaperones to organize, food to distribute, and a quickly dwindling supply of minutes.

Frantic, he hitched a ride home, borrowed his mom's car and sped toward the event hall, where he and his fellow student organizers helped put the finishing touches on their hard work.


By 7 p.m., the room was ready.

Photo by Brian Reach.

This was no ordinary prom.

There was no king, no queen, and few tuxedos. Instead, there was a space for over 300 LGBTQ youth to dress and dance how they wanted and, more importantly, a space to be completely themselves without fear of judgment.

The students at NOVA Pride Prom gather for a group shot. Photo via NOVA Pride.

The May 12 event, dubbed "NOVA Pride Prom," began two years ago at Loudon Valley High School. Smith, who took charge of planning this year's event as his senior project, partnered with local LGBTQ advocacy organizations to expand the celebration to include all of northern Virginia.

The goal was to create a prom less beholden to tradition and more open to free expression.

The theme was "Celebrate Our Past," and the venue was decorated with artwork paying tribute to LGBTQ heroes and history.

"There wasn’t the typical prom drama that happens where, 'Oh my god, she’s wearing the same dress as me,' or 'Oh, is he dancing with her?'" Smith explains of NOVA Pride Prom. "It was really just a place where people could come together and meet for the first time."

Smith (center) with advisor Amy Cannava at Pride Prom. Photo via NOVA Pride.

In addition to the dance floor, Smith and his co-planners set up a lounge with board games and couches for students to socialize and tables where local advocacy organizations — NOVA Pride, GLSEN NOVA, and the Trevor Project — could distribute resources.

Creating spaces like NOVA Pride Prom where young LGBTQ people can feel at home is crucial to their development.

"'Comfortable' may sound like a simple term to a lot of people, but it is not something that some people are experiencing in their day to day life. Just being comfortable is a huge deal," explains Brian Reach, who runs NOVA Pride, one of the organizations that partnered with Smith to run the event.

"Celebrate our Past" #novaprideprom #lgbtqyouth #novapride #loveislove #loveislocal

A post shared by NOVA Pride (@northernvapride) on

Growing up in northern Virginia, Reach recalled being the frequent target of verbal abuse. One incident, in which he was called "the other f-word" over the school loudspeaker injured him so deeply he wound up faking sickness so that his mom would take him home.

"I had a lot of sick days," he says.

For Reach, NOVA Pride Prom was a chance to give LGBTQ young people from his home region a celebration a chance to celebrate their lives and achievements in a way he barely could have imagined as a student.

"This is by far probably the event I’m the most proud of," he says.

While Reach says conditions for LGBTQ people have improved dramatically in the politically divided area since he was growing up, tensions still occasionally threaten to spill over and sometimes do.

Earlier in the school year, the LGBTQ rights group Smith founded in his high school was asked to remove promotional posters at the urging of a local parent.

In January, a motion to add LGBTQ protections to Loudon County school system's employment discrimination policy was defeated in a hotly contested school board vote.

Still, Smith says teachers and administrators at his school have largely applauded his efforts to organize and support his LGBTQ classmates.

Photo via NOVA Pride.

Both Smith and Reach say they received almost no pushback from the community about the dance.

The venue, the Bellevue Conference and Events Center, provided the space at a large discount.

Fundraising efforts were met with messages of support and donations from a wide cross-section of parents, students, teachers, and local residents. (Despite the community support, NOVA Pride is still raising money to cover the costs of the dance and supports continuing outreach efforts to LGBTQ youth in the area.)

In many ways, NOVA Pride Prom was a typical school dance — which was exactly the point.

As the night wore on, chaperones and students dropped their guard, made new friends, and danced the Macarena.

The success of the event, Smith thinks, shouldn't surprise anyone. He credits to his fellow student organizers for helping realize the best version of what a prom can be. "It’s amazing … to see how hardworking students can be when they’re passionate about something," he says.

For other students, the night was anything but typical.

"I'm trans and bi. I’ve grown up in a family that would rather have a dead daughter than a son like me," one student wrote  in an anonymous e-mail to Reach. The dance, the student explained, was the first time they'd felt not only accepted, but happy and among friends — something they never knew was possible.

The message was aglow with joy, gratitude, and perhaps most importantly, comfort.

"I can’t believe it was real," they effused. "I got to be myself and live the way I wanted."

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
True

Increasingly customers are looking for more conscious shopping options. According to a Nielsen survey in 2018, nearly half (48%) of U.S. consumers say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.

But while many consumers are interested in spending their money on products that are more sustainable, few actually follow through. An article in the 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review revealed that 65% of consumers said they want to buy purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability, but only about 26% actually do so. It's unclear where this intention gap comes from, but thankfully it's getting more convenient to shop sustainably from many of the retailers you already support.

Amazon recently introduced Climate Pledge Friendly, "a new program to help make it easy for customers to discover and shop for more sustainable products." When you're browsing Amazon, a Climate Pledge Friendly label will appear on more than 45,000 products to signify they have one or more different sustainability certifications which "help preserve the natural world, reducing the carbon footprint of shipments to customers," according to the online retailer.

Amazon

In order to distinguish more sustainable products, the program partnered with a wide range of external certifications, including governmental agencies, non-profits, and independent laboratories, all of which have a focus on preserving the natural world.

Keep Reading Show less
Images via Canva and Unsplash

If there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that being in a pandemic sucks.

However, we seem to be on different pages as to what sucks most about it. Many of us are struggling with being separated from our friends and loved ones for so long. Some of us have lost friends and family to the virus, while others are dealing with ongoing health effects of their own illness. Millions are struggling with job loss and financial stress due to businesses being closed. Parents are drowning, dealing with their kids' online schooling and lack of in-person social interactions on top of their own work logistics. Most of us hate wearing masks (even if we do so diligently), and the vast majority of us are just tired of having to think about and deal with everything the pandemic entails.

Much has been made of the mental health impact of the pandemic, which is a good thing. We need to have more open conversations about mental health in general, and with everything so upside down, it's more important now than ever. However, it feels like pandemic mental health conversations have been dominated by people who want to justify anti-lockdown arguments. "We can't let the cure be worse than the disease," people say. Kids' mental health is cited as a reason to open schools, the mental health challenges of financial despair as a reason to keep businesses open, and the mental health impact of social isolation as a reason to ditch social distancing measures.

It's not that those mental health challenges aren't real. They most definitely are. But when we focus exclusively on the mental health impact of lockdowns, we miss the fact that there are also significant mental health struggles on the other side of those arguments.

Keep Reading Show less
True

If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.

Keep Reading Show less
True
Gates Foundation

Once upon a time, a scientist named Dr. Andrew Wakefield published in the medical journal The Lancet that he had discovered a link between autism and vaccines.

After years of controversy and making parents mistrust vaccines, along with collecting $674,000 from lawyers who would benefit from suing vaccine makers, it was discovered he had made the whole thing up. The Lancet publicly apologized and reported that further investigation led to the discovery that he had fabricated everything.

Keep Reading Show less
via Budweiser

Budweiser beer, and its low-calorie counterpart, Bud Light, have created some of the most memorable Super Bowl commercials of the past 37 years.

There were the Clydesdales playing football and the poor lost puppy who found its way home because of the helpful horses. Then there were the funny frogs who repeated the brand name, "Bud," "Weis," "Er."

We can't forget the "Wassup?!" ad that premiered in December 1999, spawning the most obnoxious catchphrase of the new millennium.

Keep Reading Show less