Walking through the front doors of the Kridel Grand Ballroom at the Portland Art Museum on the last Friday of May, hundreds of youth arrived in a queer wonderland.
“Anyone a part of the queer spectrum is welcomed and not only welcomed, but celebrated,” said Silas Hoffer, Yakama and Grand Ronde, two-spirit programming advocate at the Native American Youth and Family Center, better known as NAYA. “And they’re the main focus of the whole event.”
This year’s queer prom marked the return of the event for the first time since 2019. It was held just days before the start of LGBTQ+ Pride Month. About 300 students crowded the dance floor, dressed in whatever made them feel most comfortable — elf ears, fairy wings, a rainbow wolf mask, ball gowns, suits.
“I think part of creating that confidence and building up that sense of security in yourself is having spaces like this for the kids starting young,” said Hoffer. “So that they know that they don’t have to look around the corner everywhere they go and be scared.”
In creating an environment celebrating queer joy, Hoffer hired queer folks and people of color to help run the event. DJ Aspen kept the dance floor alive with all the right music; Cooking With B. Love provided a delicious array of food; and Native drag performers Carla Rossi and Gila Suspectum wowed the crowd with their performances.
Among the many volunteers were around a dozen staff members from NAYA’s Many Nations Academy High School and NAYA Family Center.
“That also gives Native students a sense of acceptance from NAYA," Hoffer said. "It gives Native kids and adults and elders a sense that being queer is part of the community, being trans is part of the community.”
Midway through the evening, two Native drag performers took the stage — Carla Rossi, Siletz, and Gila Suspectum, Akimel O'odham and Yaqui. For many in the audience, this was their first time seeing live drag — and the performances were met with cheers and shouts of appreciation.
Twirling and lip syncing to the music, Gila Suspectum mesmerized the crowd with their performance.
When Carla Rossi took the stage, she immediately began to crack jokes — she is a self described drag clown. Wearing a neon leopard print dress, dozens of bracelets and necklaces and a string of lights formerly a table decoration wrapped around her tower of silvery hair, Carla Rossi began to mime and lip sync to musical talents including Cher.
The dance floor never emptied. Though students would take breaks to enjoy food or duck into the photo booth, classics such as the “Cupid Shuffle” would call the masses back to the dance floor.
Toward the end of the night, the music stopped as Carla Rossi and Gila Suspectum took the stage once again — for an informal “Uncle Gila Ted Talk” about two-spirit identity and colonialism. Suspectum encouraged any Native audience members in the crowd to learn about two-spirit identity within their own tribe — many tribal communities have not only a word, but a role for two-spirit people.
“Two-spirit is a sacred role, title, that we have in our communities and are trying to bring back,” Gila Suspectum said. “And we are trying to be recognized within our own communities because the trauma that our communities have faced means that we also face homophobia in our tribal lands, in our ancestral lands. Our own people reject us. So we are here, we are queer, we are Indigenous.”
Lead photo: Drag clown Carla Rossi, Siletz, performed to Cher and other musical icons, and incorporated comedic elements like fake tears into her lip syncing and dance routine. “Are you ready for some drag queer prom?” Rossi asked the crowd. “Okay, here’s the thing. I’ve recently been informed that if you come too close to a drag performer, it might turn you gay. I’m so sorry.” Her performance was met with laughter and applause — several students said the two drag performers were the highlight of prom, and dozens cheered when Rossi asked if this was anyone’s first time seeing a drag performance. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)
Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to provide platforms for the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Most recently, she worked as the health and social services reporter at The Columbian in Vancouver, Washington. Prior to working at The Columbian, Nika spent the summer of 2022, after graduating magna cum laude from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism, working as a Snowden Intern at The News-Review in Roseburg, Oregon. A descendant of the Osage and Oneida Nations, Nika was born and raised in Portland. Her favorite way to unwind is by trying a new recipe, curling up with a good book or taking a hike in one of the many green spaces around Portland.