Most American high school students look forward to their senior prom as a rite of passage—but for two gay Tennessee teens who fell in love on the running track, going to prom later this month will also be a political act.
Pedro Reyes and Evan McKenna will be the only gay couple attending the big event at their high school in Morristown on April 27, where Reyes is now a senior and McKenna is an alumnus who graduated last year.
The couple has been together for about a year-and-a-half, after first meeting on their school’s cross country running team. They’ve been open about their relationship for most of their time together, but attending prom as a couple raises the stakes of their visibility.
Being the first gay couple most of the students will see dancing together at prom isn’t a record Reyes takes lightly.
“It’s not so much the fear of what will people are going to think, since a lot of people already know we are dating, it’s more the fear of—we’ll be the first gay couple to go to our actual high school prom,” he tells PinkNews.
Luckily, the couple had a first taste of prom last year, when they attended a smaller-scale celebration with teammates from their other shared passion, the debating team.
“We had a speech and debate tournament on the same weekend as our prom last year, so we ended up doing a smaller prom with members of our speech and debate team, friends that I knew wouldn’t be judgemental or critical of Pedro and me going together. We still posted our ‘prom’ pictures on social media though, which meant that our going together was essentially public. I was surprised to find that our prom night pictures were met with nothing but praise and compliments. This was a feeling like no other,” McKenna tells PinkNews.
The atmosphere wasn’t always as supportive. When he first came out, Reyes was faced with what he describes as “hateful” messages from people he went to church with.
“We’re from a small city and East Tennessee is the heart of the Bible Belt so there’s typically a church around every street corner. I received a lot of messages from people I attended church with saying stuff like, ‘You’re going to hell’ and hateful language that I refuse to repeat. I was expecting it but I was also very surprised by the support we received from some of our teammates,” he says.
The couple came out to counter anti-gay legislations in Tennessee
If it had been up to him, Reyes would have waited until college to come out, but Tennessee had other plans. Shortly after Reyes and McKenna started dating, a Christian group called Patriot’s Brigade introduced a resolution to condemn same-sex marriage and urge legislators to ban it.
The resolution was voted down at a meeting on December 21, 2017, after more than 20 people spoke to the county commission during a period of open comment, as local media reported at the time—among these people was McKenna.
“Evan and I were both not out. There were maybe a few friends who knew about us but that was about it. [Evan] said we have to go and we have to stop this,” Reyes recalls.
McKenna came out on social media after speaking to the commission, and Reyes followed suit, inspired by what he had seen happening in his local politics.
“[It] made me realise for the first time I have a voice, and it does matter, and I will make sure my voice is heard. We cannot let this happen, this is the town we grew up in, that was the thing for me where I said, ‘OK, it’s up to us to pave the way if no one else is going to do it,'” Reyes says.
When they came out, their fellow students had just begun winter break, so it wasn’t for another three weeks that they had to confront their community’s reaction.
“There is still much progress to be made and growing up gay is still undeniably difficult in the southern US, but I must give credit where credit is due to the community that has loved me and accepted me unconditionally.”
— Evan McKenna
Despite their fears, they found a lot of support, especially from their coach. “She reminded us everyday that she’ll love us no matter what, she’ll protect us no matter what,” Reyes says.
Tennessee is among the US’ most conservative states, where 49 percent of the population identifies as “very religious” according to a 2017 Gallup poll.
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Lawmakers in the state have recently proposed six bills critics have labelled ‘slate of hate’ legislations, that, if passed, would discriminate against LGBT+ people in various aspects of life, from adoption and marriage to locker rooms and restrooms. The threat to LGBT+ rights prompted singer Taylor Swift to make a $113,000 donation to an equality group campaigning against the bills.
Reyes says: “There’s a lot of deep-wounded hate in southern states towards a lot of issues but I also believe there are a lot of good people left in this world and I believe it’s up to the younger generations to make that change. For change to happen, there needs to be someone who comes forward first and says this is what’s going on, this is how it’s wrong and this is how we’re going to change it.”
McKenna, who moved to Indiana to attend the University of Notre Dame, also found a supportive community at college.
“Contrary to what many may think, Notre Dame’s campus has plenty of resources for anyone who may identify as LGBT+. College campuses, even historically religious ones, tend to be much more aware and receptive regarding LGBT+ issues,” he says.
McKenna reflected on his time in his hometown as an openly gay teenager an overall positive experience.
He says: “I suffered from large bouts of anxiety before coming out, but I have come to realise that much of that worry I put on myself. Yes, there is still much progress to be made and growing up gay is still undeniably difficult in the southern US, but I must give credit where credit is due to the community that has loved me and accepted me unconditionally. I cannot thank Morristown, Tennessee, enough.”
But Reyes still witnesses young LGBT+ people struggling to be themselves. “I have a friend who happens to be on a sports team and [he told me] ‘I can’t come out because I’ll lose everything.’ It is a hard thing to hear, because you want to do as much as possible to help.”
Reyes hopes that attending prom with his boyfriend will help inspire others. “We [will] show everyone on our social media —my boyfriend and I went to prom and it was amazing, and you can do it too and if you need someone to talk to we are here for you.”
Reyes is asking anyone who may be willing to help McKenna travel to Tennessee to attend prom to contact him.