By Kris Hamel
Published Apr 14, 2010 5:47 PM
Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in the small town of Fulton, Miss., just wanted to do what millions of high school students around the country look forward to every spring: get dressed up, go to prom and have a great time. But McMillen is a lesbian. She wanted to take her girlfriend to the prom. She wanted to wear a tuxedo.
When her plans became known to school officials and they said, “No,” the American Civil Liberties Union and Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition stepped in on McMillen’s behalf and demanded the school rescind its policy banning same-sex prom dates and allowing only male students to wear tuxedos. The Itawamba County School District responded by canceling the April 2 prom altogether.
But McMillen didn’t give up. She went public with her resolve to attend the prom and be herself. The ACLU of Mississippi filed a lawsuit on her behalf and on March 23 the federal court in Aberdeen, Miss., ruled that the Itawamba school district had violated McMillen’s constitutional rights when it deprived her of going to the prom.
In its 12-page decision, the court wrote: “The record shows Constance has been openly gay since eighth grade and she intended to communicate a message by wearing a tuxedo and to express her identity through attending prom with a same-sex date. The Court finds this expression and communication of her viewpoint is the type of speech that falls squarely within the purview of the First Amendment.”
McMillen was happy about this victory. She stated, “It feels really good that the court realized that the school was violating my rights and discriminating against me by canceling the prom. All I ever wanted was for my school to treat me and my girlfriend like any other couple that wants to go to prom.” (aclu.org, March 23)
But the court didn’t order the school to put the prom back on the calendar. It seemed to take as good coin the school district’s assurances that an “alternative” and “private” prom being planned by parents would be open to all students. That April 5 event turned out to be a separate and totally unequal prom that was anything but nondiscriminatory.
Only seven students attended, including McMillen, who accompanied another female student but not her girlfriend, who was facing a lot of harassment. The “real” prom was taking place at a private country club. McMillen was not invited.
“It was not the prom I imagined,” said McMillen. “It really hurts my feelings. These are still people who I’ve gone through school with, even teachers who loved me before this all started. I’ve never been a bad student and I don’t feel like I deserve to be put through this.” (Associated Press, April 7)
McMillen’s story has attracted national attention and dozens of offers from around the country to host or help fund an alternative independent prom. She plans to attend a soiree in San Francisco on May 1 hosted by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is paying her travel expenses. While appearing on the Ellen DeGeneres Show on March 19, the talk show host and lesbian entertainer presented McMillen with a $30,000 scholarship check from Tonic, a digital media company.
The Facebook site, “Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!” has more than 428,000 fans as of April 12. Supporters of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights are encouraged to send a message of outrage to the Itawamba school board and demand equal treatment of LGBT students. Go to www.hrcactioncenter.org.
The Human Rights Campaign also has a petition campaign underway for passage of a federal Student Non-Discrimination Act. Every year, and not just at prom time, untold numbers of LGBT students face unequal, discriminatory, harassing and bullying treatment from both peers and school administrators.
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