The Stonewood mall in the late-1980s had been a site of several aspirational misfires to fit in, be seen. Once I was desperate to impress my 7th grade classroom teacher, Mr. Jadav, with a hardcover of The Satanic Verses my mom bought me at the Waldenbooks. She would often drive us out of the monolingual doldrums of our Southeast Los Angeles neighborhood to Downey, a suburban dreamboat and hometown of the Carpenters. A place we escaped to where we could watch the first two Karate Kid movies and eat gold digger sundaes at the Farrel’s Ice Cream Parlor. My mom only demanded my patience as she—a former piecemeal seamstress—made her rounds through the aisles at House of Fabrics.
It had once been the outdoor mall but walls had grown around it a decade later. The Stonewood mall was a place both strange and familiar. It compelled my first girlfriend to take me window shopping a year into our budding romance. She had asked me to go to the queer prom thrown by a local public health agency in Los Angeles County. Bienestar Human Services’ mission was to enhance the health and well-being of the Latino community as well as other underserved communities with educational resources on HIV and AIDS. I was of an age that spared me the death of friends, victims to a pandemic ignored by the previous Republican administrations. This was a Clinton era that normalized federal funding for clinic sites throughout the queerdoms of color in Los Angeles County. It was at the East Los Angeles office where I found solace in my first Latina Lesbian support group that met twice a week—Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons. This was in the days before the tyranny of brunch, the assertion of the contentious X in Latinidad.
Bienestar was the closest I would get to a culturally specific metonym for living loudly. It made sense: a queer prom. I didn’t go to my prom—a prom of Catholic School girls, many of whom had parental permission to bring their adult boyfriends to these dances, suited and peacocking in military uniforms. Vestiges of a dowry system, we were all holding on to some version of the old country. I made myself ugly in high school. Sinead O’Connor tore that picture of the pope my sophomore year. The Catholic Church was a bear taunted. Surviving a Catholic education in the analog age meant staying closeted. Puberty was akin to bench-warming. I found ways to resist the pre-marital marketplace facilitated by the quinceañeras and sweet sixteens of my generation. Rites of passages lorded over by dads and priests. I took my teenage hormones to the library and hid.
It was a late blooming and if it weren’t for Bienestar’s lesbian support group meetings, I would have fallen into my own well of loneliness, too intimidated to talk to these brave ones. This was the late 90s and stepping out of a comfortable, friendlier, palatable bisexuality into the colder waters of lesbianism had been a long time coming for me. I’d come out in the whiter walls of Riot Grrl a few years prior and meeting my girlfriend at a prison abolition conference at Cal State Los Angeles meant I could talk white girl rock and the familiar outposts in our Huntington Park upbringings.
She and I met at the site of both of our desires for upward mobility—the food court. After sampling teriyaki chicken she and I ventured to Windsor Fashions—the premiere mall store that catered to the presumably well adjusted high school girl ready to fulfill her homecoming/prom/sweet sixteen destiny, her forever 21 sisters in tow. I was just 22, eager to continue extinguishing my nascent butch identity in the name of same-gender congruence, same-gender loving (which was a sexual orientation in mid-90s L.A. queer of color parlance and non-profit surveys).
She wasn’t out to her parents and it was the unhelpful pre-Ellen era of if she wanted a man she’d date one. So there I was by the grace of the goddess, a reluctant eggplant-shaded lipstick lesbian teetering between a Southeast Los Angeles town and the obscene green lawns of the suburb, a child of the East Los Angeles freeway interchange, mislabeled and trembling before the chiffon train of a cobalt blue gown my girlfriend had pulled off the rack for me to try on before her. She, eager to behold some display of my ample decolletage.
I felt the heat on my face. She asked what was wrong. What was wrong? Everything, but I wouldn’t know that for years. I didn’t want my body to represent me. I turned on my heel to the nearest bench outside of the store, sitting underneath the skylight that shone over this abundant scene of gender vexation. A jackpot. I don’t want to wear a dress. It was a familiar conversation, a pat script. Could I wear…a suit? The girlfriend furrowed her brows, took a long drag of time. I guess, she sighed.
Weeks later we arrive to the queer prom in some forgettable hotel ballroom in an East Los Angeles suburb off the 60 freeway. Women’s black slacks. A Gap waistcoat. Puka shells and a tight polyester disco shirt. A wide collar. Brown horses patterned throughout. And my hair. A big, blown-out, bob. Mannish Steve Maddens pulled the regrettable ensemble together. The prom photos we took would inspire my friend S to call me a real estate agent for the years leading up to Y2K.
The night’s DJ had something for everyone. I had never heard cumbias and merengue and salsa at a party where my parents weren’t present. I was at odds with the music as it had belonged to my parents, my neighbors, everyone who I had hidden my dykedom from for those years in and out of high school. But at the queer prom I could cumbia with queers—a chance to be taught the lesson of our bodies with learned consensual joy. The combination of song and touch upped the ante in broadcasting the varying registers of desire in public, with each other as each other’s witness.
It was the year Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” took us by storm. It was the nastiest song we ever got down to that night, the opening strings, bowed and plucked, became yet another desire suddenly clarion as we rush the dance floor, taking turns pushing our butts into the nodding groins that invited them. I saw boys shuffling and thrusting on the parquet floor, sweating through their tuxedo shirts and cummerbunds. We would melt into the night of each other’s bodies. Take the same chances going home—there’d be drunk drivers on the streets, cops filling quotas, scornful neighbors’ driveways away. Our friends would get pulled over that night; Gary in a dark caretaker suit forced to walk backwards with his hands up, aware that any misstep would end terribly. Jorge in the driver’s seat had worn an empty leather holster in lieu of a suit jacket, accentuating his muscles under the taut champagne colored shirt, complete with the top two buttons, unbuttoned. I remembered saying how lucky they were, a detail of this sartorial mistake flashing in my hungover mind the morning after.