Blake Johnson, 16, who identifies as gay, said when he attended last year's Pride Prom, an annual event for high school students, "I was surrounded by people like me."
"I felt a lot more comfortable being able to express my sexuality," the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School student said. Blake, who sometimes uses his mother's maiden name, McSorley, said he was surrounded at Pride Prom "by people who respect and know how I feel."
The Pride Prom, sponsored by the Lexington Gay-Straight Alliance and set this year for May 23 at Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, is built around the idea that high school students should be able to be themselves and dance with whomever they wish, said Robert Cardom, an Alliance adviser.
In Fayette County Public Schools, all students are welcome and encouraged to attend their high school proms, said spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall. They may attend alone or with a guest who meets age requirements and behavior expectations. There are no dress code restrictions for proms at district schools, Deffendall said.
But Cardom said that especially outside Fayette County, prom night can be a challenging time for gay and transgender students in Central Kentucky.
Some students have difficulties buying tickets for their same-sex dates, he said. Others are told they must adhere to a dress code that does not honor their gender identity.
While educators are beginning to change policies due to recent clarifications to the federal Title IX policy, change is slow and moving more slowly in some schools and districts, he said.
Even when policies are inclusive, students might not feel completely supported by their classmates or teachers, Cardom said. If students are supported by school staff, they still might be targeted by other students due to their sexual identity, gender identity or gender expression, he said.
Cardom said that according to the American Civil Liberties Union, discriminating against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students is a violation of the student's First Amendment rights.
"Yet many students feel unsafe to be themselves at their school dances," said Cardom. LGBT students, especially outside of Fayette County, are sometimes told by school staff that they are not allowed to bring a same-sex date or that they must wear clothing that is not consistent with their gender identity, he said.
Cardom said that about eight in 10 students reported harassment because of their sexual orientation, according to The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network's 2013 School Climate in Kentucky state snapshot.
Blake's mother, Maureen Johnson, said Blake "went to Dunbar's prom last weekend, and I don't think he was uncomfortable there."
"I just think he is more comfortable" at the Pride Prom, she said.
"Blake is very brave and he's very smart, and obviously we support him 100 percent," Johnson said. The Pride Prom "can only help kids that don't have the support that he has."
This marks the ninth year that the Pride Prom has been held in Lexington.
"My students always love the dance because they can be themselves. They love interacting with their friends without fear of negativity and enjoy meeting new people," Amber Faris, a teacher at Dunbar said in a news release about the Pride Prom.
Cardom said he had received reports that some Pride Prom fliers in Fayette County were torn off school walls shortly after they were put up.
Bu, he said, "the bottom line is that Fayette County high schools are doing better than the national average due to the work of a few educators who are tireless in their work to support their LGBT students. There are also pockets of support in some of the local school administrations."
For example, Cardom said a group of nearly 40 school social workers and counselors from Fayette County attended voluntary training in August that was aimed at building safe and affirming schools.
Tickets for Pride Prom, 7 to 10 p.m. May 23, are available at Lexprideprom2015.eventbrite.com. While the cost is listed at $10, organizers encourage students to contact them if cost is a concern.
Cardom said the theme is Cirque Du So Gay.