I was drawn to the "lesbian prom king" story last spring.
Krystal Bennett, the only out lesbian senior at her small-town high school, was elected "king" at her senior prom on April 28, 2001. Bennett's victory at Ferndale High's prom caused a big stink in Ferndale, Washington, a disproportionately Christian town near Bellingham, in Whatcom County. Bennett was everywhere last spring--TV news, daily papers, gay magazines--and Ferndale, Washington briefly found itself in the national spotlight.
At first glance, 18-year-old Bennett's story appeared to be a retelling of a modern classic: "Young Queer Victim in the Backward Christian Town." Her tale echoed the Matthew Shepard murder (small-town bigotry) and the Oscar-winning movie Boys Don't Cry (gender non-conformity). Only in Bennett's case, nobody was martyred. She was, however, the unlucky target of mindless cruelty and threats.
I tried to write about Bennett's story last year, but I found myself clinging to superficial details, queer dogma, and murky platitudes. I couldn't get at the deeper issues that nagged me. What made it worse is that I liked Bennett immediately when we met for lunch at a Denny's near the SeaTac Doubletree Inn, two weeks after Ferndale's prom. Bennett was attending a conference on gender, and was clearly enjoying her instant "Mack Daddy" celebrity status. The recently victimized baby-faced dyke with the bleached-blond flattop told me she wanted to grow up to be an ACLU lawyer.
And that played to my fatal flaw. I'm a knee-jerk social worker. My automatic response when I meet a teenager is to protect her--that goes double if she's been oppressed. My instinct to protect Bennett overshadowed my instinct to get at some semblance of truth. I wrote draft after draft from May to September of last year--about what a great kid Bennett was, how smart Bennett was, and the lousy way Bennett had been treated by the people of Ferndale. All the while I was secretly obsessed with how Bennett's story intersected with the energy crisis, of all things, but somehow I couldn't get there. I couldn't tell the story that needed to be told because it would take the spotlight off Bennett. My editor rejected all my early drafts, and I got pissed and put away the story.
But now, on the one-year anniversary of Bennett's prom king coup, I think I finally have enough distance. So I decided to look at her story again, from the very beginning.
The lesbian prom king story started in a whimsical way. One of Krystal Bennett's friends, a straight girl, thought up the scheme.
"You should be prom king," Bennett remembers her friend telling her. "That would be awesome."
Ferndale High School selects its prom king and queen on prom night. Ballots are handed out at the door. Bennett and her friends passed the word on the dance floor: Vote for Bennett. Bennett's victory was greeted with applause and cheering from her classmates--they were in on the prank, after all, having elected her--and the popular prom queen hugged Bennett onstage.
It was inevitable, given the school's rural setting and the surprise nature of the prom court coup, that a backlash would come. In fact, the negative reaction started on prom night. School officials at the prom claimed they couldn't find the gold "prom king" crown matching the crown that had already been placed on the prom queen's head. Instead, they fetched Bennett a cardboard Burger King crown. Bennett should have received the same costume crown all Ferndale prom kings and queens are awarded, but school officials at the prom refused to produce the traditional crown in an effort to either humiliate Bennett or somehow delegitimize her election.
Bennett must have known in the back of her mind that running for prom king might provoke a response--especially if she won. Bennett was a political person, after all. She pushed the school library to carry the Advocate and to purchase queer books including Am I Blue? and Annie on My Mind. Bennett would often reprimand her peers for using racial slurs or saying "that's so gay" when they meant "weird" or "messed-up."
"I like dialogue and to get people talking," Bennett told me in an interview.
Before her friend nominated her, however, Bennett didn't ponder the potential consequences or political aspects of running for prom king. It wasn't a calculated move, like her request for the school library to carry the Advocate. She was just goofing around, like all adolescents do--only Bennett was goofing around with sex and gender roles. I don't believe Bennett had any idea how big and chaotic the dialogue she started would ultimately get.
When word got out in Ferndale about Bennett's victory, upset parents of other Ferndale High School students began to call school officials. They wanted the school to prevent anything similar from happening in the future. Local churches denounced Bennett, saying that it was sinful and illogical for a girl to be a king--particularly a butch lesbian girl who lived with her girlfriend. Taking a cue from their parents and pastors, students who cheered for Bennett on prom night began snubbing and chastising her in school hallways. Teachers told Bennett that the ballots should have been tossed, and the school administration pressured the student government to make all future prom court elections gender-specific--from now on only boy kings and girl queens would reign over Ferndale High's proms.
Word wasn't only getting out in Ferndale about Bennett. The Bellingham Herald picked up the story, that story went out on the newswires, and pretty soon Bennett was getting calls from USA Today and 20/20. She was also getting vulgar hate mail from nutcases. At this point, the B-movie versions of Bennett's story congealed. In the conservative version, Bennett represents the decline of Western civilization because she dresses like a boy, is queer, and has transgressed a sacred rite of heterosexual passage. In the liberal version, Bennett represents the wide-eyed innocent victimized by a gaggle of ignorant rural types too unevolved to explore gender roles and too "un-postmodern" to reject religion. Both stories are predictable and boring.
Once it was clear that there was mainstream interest in Bennett's story, queer media and political groups jumped on the bandwagon. In the queer version, Bennett was a standard-issue victim/hero, a brave girl fighting for justice in a world of good and evil. Bennett was suddenly, if temporarily, a very important person in the gay and lesbian community. As gays and lesbians are increasingly embraced by the mainstream, the value of "our" victims grows. We score political points off of our victims, off of our Shepards and, more metaphorically, our Bennetts. In this way, the cause of gay and lesbian civil rights only seems to be advanced when we can produce a photogenic victim with a harrowing story. Deep down, though, American gays and lesbians know that we are less victimized now than at perhaps any other time in the last 1,800 years. The increasing scarcity of gay victims increases the value, as a commodity, of a single queer person like Bennett who gets victimized in a compelling, picturesque way.
Okay, here's where we peel back the first layer by asking, "Is this really a political story?"--or is it instead a story about everyday superficiality and cruelty? It's clear that Bennett's story achieved such heightened, symbolic status in the queer community because queers are obsessed with proms. That preoccupation has driven us to create alternative parties such as Seattle's "alternative prom" for queer youth and the former "The Prom You Never Went To" in order to put demons of teen angst to rest.
The queer community has bigger issues to address than proms, but Bennett's story hit an arterial nerve. Lots of people--but especially queers--seem forever stuck in the waxed hallways of high-school memory, trying to rewrite our rejection and alienation stories. High school is a compressed and emotionally loaded place to begin with, where we undergo the confusion of puberty while facing intense pressure to conform socially. If we wake up to the fact, in such a rigid environment, that our sexual desires are aberrant, the heat of potential hell and heartbreak reaches a boiling point. The scars and badges queers carry from high school are great fodder for personal growth (in therapy), but don't make compelling politics.
Bennett played along with the queer media and groups that sought to exploit her tale of woe, and it's difficult to fault her for doing so. Although Bennett was articulate and grounded for an 18-year-old, the fact remains that she was just 18.
Bennett's biggest nemesis and media foil was Reverend Fred Phelps, the fiery Topeka, Kansas preacher. Phelps started a rumor that he was planning to stage a protest at Bennett's graduation on June 9. Phelps and his family famously picketed Matthew Shepard's funeral, carrying banners with slogans like "No fags in Heaven," "God Hates Fags," and "Fag Matt in Hell." Phelps' website, www.godhatesfags.com, features an image of Matthew Shepard's face burning in cartoon flames.
Phelps, like the gay community he would like to destroy, is always on the lookout for a good victim story. In Bennett's prom king tale he saw an opportunity to forward his anti-queer agenda. Queer activist organizations get more excited when Phelps enters the scene, and Bennett was soon getting calls from attention-seeking queer organizations that wanted to stage counterprotests on her behalf. Ferndale High's administration freaked out. Fellow students blamed Bennett for potentially ruining their graduation and inciting riots. Again, they all seemed to forget that they themselves had elected her.
Bennett got help from a lawyer, researched her civil rights, and put pressure on the school to provide protection. She also defended Phelps' First Amendment right to protest. Bennett did a good job of standing up for herself, but she was almost pulled apart by the pressure. She had trouble going to class. Her grades suffered. Bennett was appropriately scared of Fred Phelps, but more afraid of "people who were less loud-mouthed, but who might wish me harm."
Wanting to get a better feel for how Ferndale, the town, was reacting to Bennett's dilemma, I drove there. Part of what attracted me to Bennett's story was that it took place in Whatcom County. I lived there for five years, working a series of unskilled labor jobs, mostly in surrounding towns like Deming and Lynden. One job was at a production plant owned by queers. I had other lesbian friends who worked in blue-collar industries in Ferndale, at the Arco oil refinery and the Intalco aluminum smelting plant.
I was aware of Ferndale's redneck tendencies, but I have other impressions of the place as well. Some of the ashes of a woman I was desperately in love with during my Whatcom County blue-collar days are scattered at Hovander Park in Ferndale.
A pioneer-style town with a population of about 9,000, Ferndale was originally called "Jam" because logs got stuck there, near the mouth of the Nooksack River. Raised railroad tracks run parallel to Main Street, and local landmarks include a railroad trestle and a new strip mall by the freeway. There's a miniature train shop, a hardware store, and a funeral home in the cluster of buildings at the center of town. Then Main Street stretches out past church after church across rolling green fields. There are hardly any bars.
I drove around Ferndale in May 2001, looking for clues about the prom king controversy. I didn't notice any. What I did find instead surprised me: There were signs all along the road with slogans like "Intalco, Don't Go" and "We're a family that supports Intalco." Even the little marquees in front of churches begged Intalco to stay. Some promised sermons about the "energy crisis."
The Intalco aluminum smelting plant is to Ferndale what Microsoft and Boeing combined are to Seattle. Intalco is the lifeblood of the Ferndale economy. It started up in 1966, and on average produces 295,000 tons of aluminum per year, operating 24/7, employing about 900 people with a payroll of over $35 million per year.
I stopped by a big supermarket with a brand new Starbucks to buy a newspaper and find out from locals what was going on. Here's what I learned: Aluminum smelting requires massive amounts of hydroelectric energy. Intalco buys its energy from Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal agency based in Portland and created by Congress in 1937 to sell power to Northwest industries and utility companies. BPA gets its electricity from 29 dams and one nuclear plant along the Columbia Gorge and, according to the Bellingham Herald, provides 45 percent of the region's electricity. Because our region was gripped by George Bush's "energy crisis," and because of a West Coast panic over energy supplies, BPA needed to secure energy for consumers and public utilities. To do this, BPA decided it had no choice but to make deals to get energy back from power-hogging customers like Intalco. I'm simplifying here, but stick with me.
So Intalco and, it turns out, numerous other aluminum smelting plants in Washington State (about 7,000 employees' worth) elected to shut down in 2000 and 2001, in order to make more power available to the BPA. Shuttering Ferndale's Intalco plant would save the BPA about $600 million--money the BPA would have spent to buy overpriced energy on the free market in order to honor its contract allotment and price for Intalco. As part of this money-saving deal, BPA offered to pay most Intalco employees not to work for those two years.
When I was first learning this stuff, it seemed odd, and made me suspicious, but I didn't understand why. It's no wonder. My first visit to Ferndale preceded coverage of the Enron debacle by about eight months. But even way back in May of 2001, I did understand how scared people in Ferndale were. Once you close down an aluminum smelting plant, all the liquid metal hardens, ruining the machinery. To start the plant up again, massive repairs would have to be done, at a cost of millions of dollars. People in Ferndale were scared that Intalco would never start up again. The Northwest has traditionally produced almost half of the nation's aluminum, but it's getting cheaper to smelt aluminum in other countries with looser environmental laws and lower wages. China is the biggest manufacturer of cheap aluminum right now, some of which enters the country through the Port of Seattle.
In Seattle, though, we remained clueless about the kind of power brokering that shut down Ferndale's Intalco plant. Again, the Enron story wasn't out there yet. Once Bush and Cheney got their energy plan approved and Bush got his tax cuts, all the buzz about the "energy crisis" disappeared. The fallout of the energy crunch didn't hit home until we got our energy bills in late 2001, after the first cold snap. Power bills had doubled. The culprit was elusive. How was the whole mechanism threaded together locally, nationally, internationally? Energy has always been an invisible commodity, and brokering it was a new public concept. And once again, who was paying attention back then?
I'm reciting all of this because it strikes me that it's not just the queer community or impaired ex-social workers like myself who missed the big Ferndale story last year. We allowed ourselves to be distracted by cardboard crowns and small-town, small-time bigotry. While we were all paying attention to the lesbian prom king story, this other, bigger story--a much more complicated story, with much more impact--was going on right under our noses. Bennett brought tons of media attention to Ferndale, but no one in the media--mainstream, straight, queer, or lefty--picked up on the real Ferndale story. The media was obsessing over Bennett's crown while Enron and other energy executives were running riot in the Bush White House.
Bennett's graduation on June 9, 2001 was another missed opportunity. The commencement ceremonies took place at Bellingham's Civic Field. Fred Phelps and family didn't show up, but the threat of his presence provided heat. There was a constant buzz of anticipatory tension. The place was packed.
A handful of adults and students wore rainbow lapel ribbons. Another handful wore "Save Intalco" buttons. About 20 police officers hovered around, looking bored. There was a small group of queer demonstrators in the stadium parking lot who were too passive and peripheral to make much of an impression. One lady in the audience did manage to make an impression: She held up a cardboard sign and shook it, causing hundreds of people in the audience to jump up. Everyone wanted to see her sign--was she a protester? What was her message? When people saw the word "Kurt" written on the sign in big red letters, they sat down. She wasn't an anti-gay protester. She was just someone's mom.
With the media's attention locked on Ferndale, thanks to Bennett, school officials and graduation speakers like the valedictorian had a chance to speak to what was happening to their school and town. The focus could have widened from anti-gender-bending bigotry to bigger social concerns. What if someone had just acknowledged, and brought together in a speech, the audience's collective fears around issues of tolerance, change, and economic collapse? Instead speakers droned on about hope, the future, and being the first graduating class of the new millennium--topics that seemed thin when juxtaposed against a failing economy and a dissolving dot-com dream world. Meanwhile, the media focused on the only victim whose story was easy to tell and easy to grasp: the lesbian prom king.
Ferndale High School receives $700,000 per year from Intalco. "We spent three days discussing Intalco changes in our classes," Bennett told me when I asked her what she knew about the company. "Unemployment here is going crazy. I think Whatcom County will become a ghost town." If Bennett's story is the story of a victim, Bennett was just one victim in a town full of victims of a fake energy crisis and a real, threatening economic slump. So how come the media was only telling Bennett's story?
Outside Civic Field, more opportunities for smart dialogue were lost. In response to Phelps' labeling of queers as "filthy brute beasts," a group of college students dressed up as "The Filthy Beast Circus Street Theatre." They held banners. It was raining. They passed out flyers that said, "We believe filthy beasts deserve love, acceptance, and human rights." It was sweet, but I can't think of one former Whatcom County neighbor or friend who would have connected with their message. Across the street was a lone Christian agitator, David. He was a Moonie, a disciple of Korean cult leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon. David carried a sign with unevenly painted commentary about homosexuals being sinners loved by God.
"I came about the queen," David told me, apparently not quite sure who or what he was in Bellingham to oppose.
As Bennett was leaving the stadium with her girlfriend and family, a camera crew from a Seattle TV station aggressively elbowed in for an interview. They were relentless. A cameraman told Bennett's girlfriend, "If you break my camera, I'll break your face." Bennett was badgered for a quote. A media person pushed Bennett's sister, who was seven months pregnant. The reporters chased Bennett's family all the way to their car. It was the only violence of the day.
Everyone jumped on Bennett's "victim story" and wanted to own a piece of it, of her, and recite her praises: the prom, the fake crown, the cruelty at school and how she triumphed at graduation. The general consensus, my inner social worker, and the sanctity of victim stories to the gay and lesbian movement left me incapable of objectively critiquing her situation.
It was the same conflict I felt watching The Laramie Project last fall. I wanted to like it, and I was supposed to like it, only... it annoyed me. Critiquing The Laramie Project was easier than critiquing Bennett, because I didn't feel compelled to protect anyone, which made it easier to identify the source of my frustration. What bugged me about The Laramie Project was how sentimental and predictable the piece was. A group of actors from New York flew to Laramie, Wyoming and interviewed residents about the murder of Matthew Shepard, and then created a play out of the transcripts of those interviews. What's innovative about that? The play didn't ask any haunting questions or present new ideas--it was the usual formula. Small-town bigots, bad; Matthew Shepard, martyr. The story was fixed before the first actor walked onstage, and was not any different from the stories we had been reading in the mainstream and gay media since the day Matthew Shepard was murdered. With nothing new or insightful to say, why revisit his murder? What's more, the idea of all those urban actors descending on rural Laramie to gather material and create "small-town" characters bugged me. That the actors didn't reveal and explore their own prejudices and blind spots bugged me even more.
While grumbling about The Laramie Project, I was sitting on three oversimplified drafts of Bennett's story. I had written nothing compelling. I couldn't yet admit that I was doing Bennett a disservice by not telling all the truth, by avoiding the jagged parts of the story. I was treating Ferndale, Washington no differently than the creators of The Laramie Project had treated Laramie, Wyoming. I had a victim story to tell, and no larger truths were going to get in my way.
It took a year before I could honestly write about what it was like to watch Krystal Bennett riding on a float in Seattle's gay pride parade. Her presence on the float seemed like a coup for the float's sponsor, a newspaper called the Seattle Gay Standard, which tanked a few months later. The float apparently wasn't designed with any consideration for Bennett, who was dressed in modified prom king wear--a white dress shirt and black slacks, and the infamous Burger King crown. The weather was dismal, and it rained heavily throughout most of the parade. Bennett and everyone else were drenched.
I wondered what impact Bennett had on the crowd. She was seated in a chair (throne?) beside a dancing bare-breasted woman whose breasts slapped the air. Bennett, from a different world, waved. The effect was absurd and random, but what would have been better? A mock prom? A few more bare-breasted women? The Gay Standard wanted Bennett on their float because she was the gay community's most recent victim/hero, and any design considerations were clearly an afterthought.
In fact, the whole gay pride parade felt like an afterthought, a tired exercise with a soggy mission statement. The only element of the parade that made me feel "proud" was the group march in protest of Aaron Roberts' death. (Roberts, a straight man, died after being shot by a police officer in May 2001.)
Later, I went to Volunteer Park to watch Bennett's speech. There was scarcely an audience when she walked onstage. She'd been advised to tell her story. No one coached her; she ended up talking about Ferndale High School's gender policies at proms and trying to get them changed. The men I was standing beside couldn't hear her, and kept repeating "Who's that?" and "I'm bored." Bennett concluded by saying: "Your taxes are supporting schools. People from outside should get more into what happens inside schools."
When I talked to Bennett later, she was proud of her speech. She had received rounds of compliments, and that's what matters--except I doubt that many people will remember her or her words. And that's a drag. I wish the people who crowded around her had given her more guidance. It's hard not to want more: more intelligence, more self-effacement, more honesty about the way our self-hatred and insecurities manifest themselves. It seems twice traumatizing to make someone an instant star and parade them around, then drop them after the political spotlight shifts to the next media-embraced victim. Matthew Shepard is the most famous example of gay victim/hero, but he couldn't be directly hurt by organizations using him to score political points. He was already dead. Bennett, on the other hand, was alive and well and caught in a post-prom media storm. It has to be a letdown, going from Mack Daddy and "prom king" of the pride parade to becoming just another dyke face in the crowd. But that's the inevitable other side of the slope for victim/heroes once the point has been made, once their usefulness to gay media and political groups has passed.
Things have changed since last year. On April 16, 2002, Intalco announced it would start up its aluminum smelting business again, with 200 fewer employees and under new management. In the rest of the state, aluminum smelting plants less modern and efficient than Intalco, along with their connected communities, are in bad shape. Experts say Washington is turning into a service-industry state. The transition, which we don't directly witness in Seattle, is ugly. It means no more union jobs, and no high-paying ($40-60k per year) jobs for people who didn't go to college. No health-care benefits. No pensions. It means penury for working-class people in small towns like Ferndale.
Bennett finally got her real crown, 10 months late, from Ferndale High School. She had to go pick it up herself from the school after asking for it numerous times. When she visited Ferndale High she noticed that the library still wasn't displaying either the Advocate or any of the queer books the librarian promised Bennett were ordered. Bennett's life has calmed down. She told me recently that people on the Internet still recognize the "prom king" story, but don't always believe, online, that it's her. Where she's retained the most Mack Daddy fame is with kids her own age: Several girls have asked Bennett to their proms this year. She's flattered to be their dream date.
Bennett has also heard from girls who keep her September 2001 Seventeen magazine article pinned to their walls. The magazine paid Bennett to write a two-page story about herself. Other magazines--Girlfriends, Curve, the Advocate--also devoted a few paragraphs to Bennett. In her Seventeen article, called "The Girl Who Would Be King," Bennett is confessional and conversational. She leaves out un-Seventeen facts like living with her girlfriend. She's photographed sporting the Burger King crown, of course, but was also photographed in front of Ferndale's football stadium, under a school-spirit banner reading "It's a Matter of Pride." It was Bennett's idea. I never thought I would be singing Seventeen magazine's praises, but they let Bennett portray more of her humanity than any of the gay media did--or the other straight media, for that matter.
"[B]y the summer before ninth grade, I knew I was gay and I felt wrong hiding it from my pals," Bennett wrote in Seventeen. "So one day, five of us were driving along in my friend Jennifer's car, and I told them. Everyone was uncomfortable and started making jokes, to show me they were okay with it. They didn't know how much it hurt when we drove past Van Dyke Road and they offered to steal the street sign for me. They laughed about it. But to me, they were laughing at the word 'dyke,' and that described me, so there must be something about me to laugh about. When one friend got out of the car, she giggled and asked me not to look at her butt. I felt humiliated."
Bennett says this year she'll attend Seattle's pride parade as a spectator. She's proud that she rode on the float and spoke last year. While it bothered me to watch Bennett in the parade, she says she loved the experience.
Bennett still feels Ferndale school administrators treated her poorly. She assumes that a male prom king was crowned this year--in the traditional fashion, with a gold crown. She hasn't heard otherwise.
One regret she has is that Ferndale "got a lot of flack for what happened," and that she had "a lot of really amazing supporters [in Ferndale] who didn't get much light."
Bennett still wants to study to be a lawyer or an artist. She thinks about moving to other towns, maybe a city. She's ready now, she says. She sees the prom king story as an opportunity that will help open doors for her down the road.
As for me, I'm still obsessed with figuring out how the energy crisis, power brokering, Enron, and the lesbian prom king all fit together. I suspect there's a bigger story out there than the one I've just told you, but it might take me another year to figure it out.