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Prom Queen: Gay Teen to Dazzle in Drag

Orland teen Jacob Szymanski wants to blaze a path for other gay students. Mom says she wishes she had "his kind of guts."

Jacob Szymanski, before during and after transformation into "Harlet Wench." Photo by Dempsey Deless
Jacob Szymanski, before during and after transformation into "Harlet Wench." Photo by Dempsey Deless
ORLAND PARK, IL — Jodette Szymanski doesn't mind getting makeup tips from her son Jacob. 

Jacob's flair for the arts of cosmetics and fashion started when he was 12, watching as Jodette applied makeup and shopped for clothes. What began as her pre-teen son traipsing around the neighborhood playfully, dressed in women's clothes on Halloween, has transformed into an open expression of his creativity and individuality. 

The gay Sandburg High School senior will strut another side of himself April 25 when he attends prom dressed as drag queen alter-ego "Harlet Wench." He'll be joined by friend Andy Zhang, who will dress as "Eva Young."

"We're going to be pioneers of the gay kids," Jacob said. "We're going to set new standards—so the next years to come, no one will be nervous, they can do it if they want to. 

"Gay kids won't be as embarrassed to go to these things. They don't have to be drag queens—but they will feel better about going with another boy, another girl.  

"I think it's incredible that we live in a time where things like this can happen. Let's make Herstory," he wrote on his Facebook page.

'In His Element'

Jodette is afraid for Jacob. Though proud of his willingness to step out in such a big way, she worries some classmates might not be as supportive as those who already know. 
 
"But for every one person that doesn't accept it, there seem to be three or four more who do," she said. 

She had an inkling of his homosexuality as early as the age of 12, saying he expressed little interest in sports but more in cosmetics. She once asked if he liked girls or boys, and he stated sweetly that he likes everyone "as long as they're a good person." As he grew, his interests turned into a method of self-expression. In the years before he attained a driver's license, she drove drag-clad Jacob into Chicago for the Gay Pride Parade. She watched as he was invited onto a float and embraced by those around him.

"He's in his element," she said. "I've always been so proud of him, that he's never been afraid to express himself. He's never cared what other people think."

Still, the former flight attendant fears intolerance. 

"We've come a long way, but there's so much more room to grow," she said. "I would love to see him make a pathway for young adults to come out and be who they are, be open—not live in fear."

'If We Can Do It, So Can They'

Jacob wasn't sure how school administrators would feel about his desire to attend in drag.

"I was ready to fight for it," he said, laughing. 

But the school was surprisingly permissive. The dress must meet the school's dress code and must not disrupt the dance in any way, said Carla Erdey, communications director for Consolidated High School District 230.

He understands their concerns and is eager for the chance to openly show this side of himself to his classmates. He maintains two separate Facebook pages, selectively sharing photos among his separate circles. Many know he dresses in drag, often for Chicago events and shows, but most have yet to see it in person.

And they're in for a show. Jacob and Jodette spend hours online searching for the perfect dress and shoes. 

"I've had a few in mind, but they're all $650," Jacob said. "But I've got one in mind."

Jodette looks forward to the shopping. 

"It's just me being involved in his life," she said. "My whole life revolves around him, and I think it always will."

Jacob's decision might be individual, but she hopes it will have a ripple effect. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center has estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual youth, depending on age and sex groups, have attempted suicide. On the national level, about 25 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual students have been harassed due to their sexual orientation, as well as a third of those who identify as transgender, according to a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"If this can change one child to come out, be who he wants to be, live a life the way he wants to—this is so important," she said. 

After graduation, straight-A student Jacob will continue to pursue his love of makeup by attending Paul Mitchell Cosmetology School. He aspires to a career as a makeup artist. 

Szymanski admires his passion and commitment. 

"I'm 47 years old, and I'm still learning who I am," she said. "My son is 17, and he knows exactly who he is. He's always been willing to put himself out there, to be who he wants to be.

"I wish I had that kind of guts."

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The Oracle of Tinley Park February 05, 2014 at 07:09 AM
Good for him/her! This world needs more brave people being who they are and less judgmental bigots who think their OPINION is somehow relevant to everyone's life.

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