Portia Cantrell’s wife wants the Gray Pride Prom to be as authentic as possible, so she’s not agreeing to go until she receives a proper promposal. “If we’re doing this, we’re doing it right,” she told Cantrell.
Cantrell’s mother died when she was six. Her sister, who is 12 years older, moved back into the house to help her father take care of her. When she was 15, her sister caught her in her bedroom with her girlfriend.
“If you’re going to act like this, there’s the door,” she recalled her sister saying. A friend of her father let her live in his garage. But he got her pregnant, and she dropped out of school.
“Life is good, but it doesn’t turn out that way for a number of people,” the always optimistic Cantrell said about what happened to her.
Although she dropped out of high school, Cantrell earned her GED and went to college. So she got to walk across a stage to receive a diploma. But she never got to walk down a red carpet to her prom — and that bothers her. A lot.
This was the perfect year for it, she decided. Her niece is 16 and Cantrell is 62. Her niece is out and going to her prom with her girlfriend, so Cantrell figures it’s the perfect time for her to go to prom with her wife.
Other members of Gray Pride, a program of Resource Center that holds a weekly meetup on Monday afternoons, have similar reasons they’re going to the Gray Pride Prom.
Serena Smuckers, a transgender woman, explained the discomfort of putting on a tux for her prom. “Prom was miserable,” she said. “I had to be the upstanding dude.”
Could she go as her authentic self? “You couldn’t do that in a town of 6,800 in Nebraska,” she said.
Cantrell, on the other hand, said, “I want to go and wear a tux. I dream of having someone on my arm and not being on someone’s arm. Now, thanks to Gray Pride, I can do that.”
Larry Derrick called his coming out a revolving door — he was out with gay friends, but not with his family. He finally came out at 29.
“What I want to get out of prom is to bring the person I wanted to bring in high school,” he said. Even if he was really out in high school, he said his school would never have permitted him to go to prom with another man.
Phil Garbera is from Cooperstown, a small town in upstate New York, best known as the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Prom for me was non-existent,” Garbera said. “It was an awkward time for me.”
There was no social media then, he noted. No internet. Just a card catalog in the library with few books. He was shy and didn’t say much to anyone in high school.
“If I talked, someone might pick up on an inflection,” he said. “So I became more introverted.”
But he came from a supportive family. “My parents adored me,” he said. “I never had the ‘gay conversation’ with them.”
When he started dating, Garbera said his friends would pick him up at the end of the driveway. But his parents wanted to meet them. “Then they did and they were lovely to me,” he said.
Still, Garbera recalled, that was at a time when a man could be institutionalized just for dancing with another man. Not until 1973, during a meeting of the American Psychological Association in Dallas, was homosexuality declassified as a mental disorder.
Cantrell said in the course of her life, she has gone from facing the possibility of being arrested for dancing with another woman to the joy of dancing with her wife at her prom.
The Gray Pride Prom is for anyone 50 and older and those accompanying someone 50 or older. The event will be held at Resource Center on May 13, with a DJ, cocktails, a red carpet and photographer.
Gray Pride runs a support group on Mondays at 11:45 a.m. for people to discuss their issues with aging with a counselor from
Resource Center’s mental health program in conjunction with Southern Methodist University. From 1-5 p.m. is a meetup for senior socializing.
As much as he enjoys inter-generational programs, Gray Pride meetup attendee David Moskowitz said, “I enjoy talking with people my age and older about what happened in the past and how things have changed since the ’60s.”
Cantrell said she can just be herself at a Gray Pride gathering.
“I have found that if you’re over 50, you disappear,” she said. “You’re irrelevant.”
Garbera said that was better than when he first came out and older gay men told him, “Your life’s over at 30.”
Cantrell called prom part of a rite of passage that led to graduation. That didn’t happen for her. After she was thrown out of her house, she didn’t talk to her sister again until she was 41. At that time, she found out her sister needed a kidney. She went for a test, found out she was a good match and donated her kidney to her sister.
They reconciled but never really spoke directly about the time her sister threw her out of the house.
Cantrell’s sister is in her 70s now, and Cantrell knows she should have a conversation with her about why her sister did what she did and how it affected Cantrell.
All in all, Cantrell said she’s had a good life. After college, she became a nurse and then a trauma nurse specialist. And in May she’ll make up the one thing she says she missed in her life — the prom.
Tickets for the Gray Pride Prom are $10 and available at FiftyShadesGPProm.eventbrite.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 21, 2017.