BAR HARBOR — Mount Desert Island High School (MDIHS) was the first public high school in Maine to organize a Gay Straight Diversity Alliance, in 1997.
This spring, MDIHS will become the first public high school to host the Rainbow Ball, a weekend-long retreat for LGBTQ students and their friends, April 27-29.
The event was first held in 2007 on the campus of the University of Maine at Machias. Lois-Ann Kuntz, a psychology professor at Machias, organized the event for 10 years at that location. The inaugural ball had only eight attendees, but it has since ballooned to 250. Students come from as far away as Portland and Caribou for the weekend of education and social activities.
“It’s a huge amount of work,” Kuntz said. “You have to schedule buses, schedule speakers and help with training chaperones.”
Kuntz, now a member of the ball’s 10-person steering committee, said that the event outgrew the Machias campus because there was not space to accommodate the students and activities on campus.
“The original idea was for it to be an inclusive prom where they could feel safe,” said MDI High School science teacher Lin Gould, who’s the lead organizer of the 2018 Rainbow Ball. “There’s all these heart-wrenching stats about LGBTQ students that show them [as more likely to be] homeless or in the penal system.”
With increasing participation, funding for the event has become a bigger challenge. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Ellsworth started a crowdfunding campaign to raise $8,000 for the event. Ten donors have raised almost $900 toward the goal. Gould said that while there is enough money currently to hold the event this year, additional resources would help ensure that the event keeps happening.
“It’s essential to the future of the Rainbow Ball,” Gould said. “We need to have enough of a fund [to keep it going,]”
Kuntz said that a number of UU churches and other organizations have been gracious in their donations to the event.
“We’ve been super fortunate with [support] from the community and churches,” she said. “It’s such a meaningful experience for these kids because it’s the first time they’ve been in a majority.”
Participants and chaperones will eat in the cafeteria and sleep on school floors during the event.
Gould said that this event is important for rural LGBTQ teens, who often have less access to support and resources than their counterparts in Southern Maine.
Phoenix Hebert, 18, of Searsport, has attended the event four times. Hebert said they look forward to the event every year.
“I have been able to experience and explore both gender and sexuality and have come to peace with who I identify as now,” Hebert said. “That kind of safe and encouraging environment is key to making teenagers feel safe and able to open up to others.”
This year’s theme is based on the musical “Hamilton.”
Visit The Rainbow Ball Weekend on Facebook.