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 I COULD ALWAYS TELL. Limousines buzzed up and down the street. Grimy boys who typically favored ripped jeans and T-shirts glistened like grooms. Homely girls transformed themselves into neighborhood Miss Americas. Yup, prom night. And for one evening, our boring suburb resembled the ones I saw in the movies and on TV.

Initially albeit misguidedly, I looked forward to mine; I even hijacked the prom committee senior year. Location, theme song, decorations, invitations, friends' dresses--I got involved in all the big decisions. Then I had to find a date. My best friend growing up was a pretty, precocious girl named Julie. We met in kindergarten and, ignorant of the boy-meets-girl nature of prom, I grew more and more attached over the years to the idea that we would go together. Then Julie started dating Stu, the captain of the football team, and it became clear that she would be busy that night.

Without Julie, I watched in horror as, two by two, couples paired off. Not going was not an option; that in my mind was tantamount to coming out. Instead, I settled on Joanne, an orthodontically challenged junior I met on the set of our high school's rendition of West Side Story. (Full disclosure: I also had braces at the time.)

It's been fifteen years since my prom, but I still remember much of the evening: the pre-party around a backyard swimming pool; comforting Joanne when she ripped the hem of her electric-blue, satin dress; dirty dancing with some friends in a cramped late-night club in Manhattan. And then there was the limo ride home. Stretched out across my date's lap, I felt completely betrayed as the boy I pined for made out clumsily with his date. Next to him, another friend rustled his hands beneath his girlfriend's gown. None of this was lost on Joanne; she wove her fingers suggestively through mine, inviting me to make a move. I pretended to be asleep.

I sensed I was what my mother termed "AC/DC" long before prom night: I played mostly with girls throughout grade school; when I was ten, I joined a swim team and snuck peeks of the other boys as they suited up; around that time, I also began to pilfer Playgirl from the mall's bookstore. But in the back of that limo, the fantasy of prom and heterosexuality collided with the reality of being gay and closeted. And as much as I wanted to, I could not look away.

WHILE THERE ARE ANECDOTAL REPORTS of same-sex couples attending proms beginning in the late 1950, the battle officially began in the spring of 1980 when Aaron Fricke sued his school's principal, through the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island, so he could attend his senior prom with Paul Guilbert. Aaron prevailed but faced vocal opposition from the public and many of his classmates, especially Dan Stewart. Says Dan, who later became the first openly gay mayor in New York State, "I just wanted to lash out because I didn't want to be gay." So he aired his self-hatred on local TV, radio, and in the press.

In reality, most teens were more like Lois Kasten, who appears on the cover with her date Patrick Mulhall. She was not out as a lesbian (even to herself) when she was crowned Prom Queen in 1980. But like many crafty queers, she was self-aware enough to escape the romantic vibe and sexual expectations of prom night by attending with a good friend who--surprise--turned out to be gay. The following year, the first gay prom was held in Boston. Since then, gay proms have become more and more commonplace. In fact, the first school-sanctioned gay prom took place in Los Angeles in 1994.

As the '90s wound down, couples at school proms began to reflect the growing acceptance of gays in America, especially in cities and on the coasts. Sociologist Amy Best notes in her book Prom Night, published in 2000, "The prom, an event that not only normalizes, but institutionalizes heterosexuality, has been taken up by gay and lesbian youth as a space to solidify their identity and contest heterosexuality as a taken-for-granted cultural practice."

That is also at the heart of the current debate over gay rights; queers continue to contest heterosexuals' lock on institutions like marriage and parenthood. And while Americans have proven they are okay with gays being their decorators and consultants on all things creative, we as a country are still grappling with how much is enough and what is too much.

These are ambiguous times. Not too long ago, having a queer eye for a straight guy was likely to land a person in the emergency room; now it can land you on the cover of Vanity Fair. At the same time, after the Supreme Court struck down antiquated and rarely enforced anti-sodomy laws, public acceptance of homosexuality, according to Gallup polling, plummeted to its lowest point since 1996. A few months later, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriages, much of the initial discussion in the press focused on whom that decision might offend and how it could be overturned with a constitutional amendment legally defining "marriage" as a union between one man and one woman.

All of the progress made in the last decade seems to have riled the more conservative among us, who now seem intent on turning back the clock. And, as history proves, progress is rarely linear: a few steps forward are often followed by a step or two back. Who knows how queers will fare in this new millennium. Hopefully in a few years the stories in KINGS & QUEENS will feel like relics from a less tolerant past. Still, it's worth knowing where we came from and how we got here.

In the introduction to Working, Studs Terkel's exploration of Americans at work, the legendary oral historian wrote, "I had a general idea of the kind of people I wanted to see, who in reflecting on their personal condition, would touch on the circumstances of their fellows." While in no way a complete retelling of queer history, together, the words and photos of the men and women in the book capture what it's been like to be queer in the twentieth century and reflect the seismic shift in attitudes not just towards sexuality, but also race, religion and gender. I am grateful to all of them for sharing their proms and lives with me. And now with you.