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‘Problematic’ county dance to allow all same-sex teen couples

February 7, 2019

For the first time in its 80-year history, a prominent Fairfield County-wide school dance will be open to all same-sex couples starting next year.

Following repeated inquiries from Hearst Connecticut Media, the County Assemblies said in an email that all same-sex couples would be allowed to attend in 2020.

“We have welcomed same-sex female couples for years and value their participation in our events,” the organization said in an emailed statement to Hearst. “We now whole-heartedly welcome all same-sex couples.”

The required dress code will also change to be more inclusive, the organization said. Girls were allowed to wear either dresses or a tuxedo while boys were required to wear a tuxedo, a policy LGBTQ advocates said was exclusionary.

“We find that problematic,” said Conor Pfeiffer, development officer for Norwalk-based Triangle Community Center. “It would influence someone’s ability to express their gender identity.”

In order to attend the “Counties,” as the annual County Assembly Charity Ball is called colloquially, a girl in her junior year of high school must invite an escort. No stag attendees are allowed.

The Counties, and the “Red and White Charity Ball” held for high school seniors, is run by The Counties Assemblies, Inc., founded by Mrs. Willem Schilthuis in 1938. It originated with the planning of a Christmas dance held at the Red Barn for a group of young people from Westport, according to the organization’s website.

Students had started to “agitate” in recent years over policies they felt excluded the LGBTQ community, according to Chris Fray, a Mandarin and Spanish teacher at Westport’s Staples High School, and the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance advisor.

“The Counties was certainly gender normative,” Fray said. “There was always a sense of exclusion, and I think that’s why they felt so strongly about it.”

Students involved in the Gay-Straight Alliance had written an article in the school newspaper and emailed dance organizers, though the response had been “polite” but noncommittal,” Fray said: “The students said this is one of our goals this year, to get a response from the Counties.”

The dance is actually two dances. Students from Easton, Fairfield and Redding attended last Friday; Westport, Weston and Wilton on Saturday.

Both are very well attended. Board member Rosanna Alfero said Saturday’s event alone drew close to 800 students.

The purpose, the organization said, is to “creating space for girls to feel comfortable and empowered to take a leading social role and independently ask an escort to accompany them to this event, in the hopes of furthering the equality of power in these relationships.”

That being said, board members said they recognized policies had to change.

“We are not blind to the fact that young men, especially LGBTQ men, can be marginalized, too,” the organization said. “We have struggled to balance our commitment to empower women with our intention that no student feel excluded from our events based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. This event was never designed to be exclusionary to young men, especially LGBTQ men, but, more recently, designed to combat a specific imbalance of power in social and dating relationships.”

LGBTQ advocates hailed the decision.

“County Assemblies Charity events is right to revise its policies around gender for 2020,” Pfeifer said. “As we understand it, Counties Assembly Charity is headed up largely by parents who care about the kind of world they want to shape for their kids.”

Jordan Fenster is digital products editor for Hearst Connecticut Media. Jordan.Fenster@hearstmediact.com.

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