June 1, 2023

Photo Essay: Celebrating Joy at NAYA’s Queer Prom

The Native American Youth and Family Center invited students from all over Portland to show up authentically at Queer Prom.


Underscore News + ICT

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.”

About 300 high school students attended Queer Prom, hosted by the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), on Friday May 26 in the Portland Art Museum’s Kridel Grand Ballroom. The dance floor was never empty. Students showed off their moves, singing and dancing along to the music by DJ Aspen. Silas Hoffer, Yakama and Grand Ronde, two-spirit programming advocate at NAYA who organized the event, wanted to create a space to celebrate queer joy for the evening. “There is a safe place for them in the world and it’s not as scary as it’s made out to be,” Hoffer said. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

Josiah Hafez, Tohono Óohdan, left, dances with Lucas Hunter, Yakama. Hafez is a student at NAYA’s Many Nations Academy High School and Hunter is an outreach specialist at NAYA. "I just love seeing everybody feel like they are in a safe, fun space to express themselves," Hunter said. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

Kris Sanders, left, and Heleen RedBird, right, take a break from dancing to put together neon bracelets — neon was the theme of NAYA's Queer Prom. The two spent most of the evening dancing front and center. "It's just nice how everyone is nonjudgmental, they just kick it with you," RedBird said. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

"Being able to see everyone express their style is absolutely wonderful," Reine Bieker said. He came to queer prom dressed in a gothic inspired outfit, complete with a lace mask and red cape. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT

Silas Hoffer, Yakama and Grand Ronde, two-spirit programming advocate at NAYA, took the lead organizing NAYA's Queer Prom this year. Hoffer worked to cultivate a space of safety and celebration of queer joy at the event. Hoffer said that meant showing the students examples of thriving queer adults, to help them envision a future for themselves. “I know it would have been helpful for me growing up if I had had that representation of adults,” Hoffer said. “Even as an adult, coming out, it was hard for me because I didn’t know where to look.” (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

“I want you to give love and light to tonight’s performer — who swam all the way up river, and boy are their fins tired — everybody at queer prom give it up for the one, only, Portland’s own, Gila Suspectum!” Carla Rossi said, met with cheers of excitement. Two-spirit drag performer Gila Suspectum, Akimel O'odham and Yaqui, took the stage as a “mushroom dragon” using their electric rainbow wings during an interpretive dance. They said the highlight of the night was being part of an opportunity that wasn’t available for youth when they were growing up. “Seeing the next generation of queers and knowing that they are going to be okay because we have infrastructures like this, places like this where they can really come and be themselves,” Suspectum said. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

Two-spirit drag performer Gila Suspectum, Akimel O'odham and Yaqui, captured the audience's adoration during their performance at queer prom as they danced and lip synced to the music, twirling in an electric rainbow cape. Dressed as a "mushroom dragon," Gila Suspectum looked like a mythical being out of a fantasy novel. Neon mushrooms adorned the horns on their head, their ears looked like they could belong to a sea creature; and they donned long nails like talons. Colorful face makeup tied the look together. "Colonialism brings the gender binary. Colonialism brings homophobia," Gila Suspectum told the crowd, who cheered in response. "Being (two-spirit) is a sacred cultural role." (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

Xander Gray, Assiniboine, listens as drag performer Gila Suspectum talks about what it means to be two-spirit and how the gender binary is a product of colonization. "Just be yourself man," Gray said. "Who gives a fuck what people think about you." Gray spent most of the evening dancing with his arms spread wide and his braids flying out behind him. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

Plex Wellce, left, and Brooklyn Parish, right, try on props while standing in line for the photo booth. "My mom told me I should go to prom with my girlfriend, so here I am," Parish said, squeezing Wellce's hand and flashing her a smile. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

Students from Many Nations Academy gathered together for a group photo at queer prom, organized by NAYA staff. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

Staff from Latino Network had a booth at queer prom, giving out multiple types of lube and condoms for free, with a chance to win candy by spinning the prize wheel and answering a corresponding, sex education-related question. "It's nice to see people be happy in a time where all this hateful legislation is happening," said Santiago McBride, pictured, when asked about their favorite part of the evening. "It's nice to just be like, we are here, we are not being erased. We are going to have a good time and live our best life." (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

There was no dress code at NAYA's Queer Prom — people came as themselves, wearing what made them most comfortable. Elf ears and fairy wings; gowns and suits; cowboy hats and tasseled pants; rainbows and all black. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

Inspired by drag performers, Cash Fairman came to queer prom dressed as a clown. Her favorite part of the evening was watching the drag performers, Gila Suspectum and Carla Rossi, a drag clown. "I didn't feel comfortable at my own school prom, but I feel comfortable here," Fairman said. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

Drag clown Carla Rossi, Siletz, named herself "Prom Mom" for the evening — taking over the mic throughout the night to scold people for not cleaning up after themselves and cracking jokes. She performed midway through the night, dancing and lip syncing as the crowd cheered along. "Just seeing all the young, queer joy is incredible," Carla Rossi said. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

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)

About the author

Nika Bartoo-Smith

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. Born and raised in Portland, Nika is a descendant of the Osage and Oneida Nations, with Northern European and Indonesian heritage. A joint reporter with Underscore News + ICT since March 2023, she previously worked as the health and social services reporter at The Columbian in Vancouver, Washington. Her favorite way to unwind is by trying a new recipe, browsing the aisles of a local bookstore or creating beaded jewelry.

Twitter: @BartooNika

Email: nbartoosmith@underscore.news

Click here to view stories by Nika.