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Anti-Gay Miss. School Agrees to LGBT Program

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jul 20, 2010
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Most of America knows the story of Constance McMillen. She was the 18-year-old Mississippi lesbian who took her high school to court when the school refused to allow her to attend prom in a tux, with her girlfriend in tow. Faced with the suit, the school canceled prom altogether--then, when the case went to court anyway, the school promised to organize an inclusive school dance, only for most of the students to gather at one location while Constance and a handful of others were shunted to a poorly attended separate event. (The Itawamba School Board subsequently denied having mounted what the media characterized as a "sham prom" for Constance and a handful of less popular kids.)

Constance went on to become a poster child for GLBT youth: self-assured, relaxed before the camera. She appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ televised talk show and Michelangelo Signorile’s radio program, and attended a plethora of GLBT events, including New York’s Pride march, where she served as one of three Grand Marshals.

It’s easy to read the index-card version of McMillen’s story and come away with a stereotypical impression of the South: anti-gay, morally rigid, unwelcoming. But that’s not the full story, reports Slate.com in a July 7 article.

Indeed, the culture of the South is rapidly becoming far more GLBT-friendly than many non-Southerners might be prepared to credit, Slate said. "The Itawamba School Board’s decision to cancel the prom was stunningly ill-conceived, given the mounting stack of Southern case law defending the constitutional rights of gay students," the article noted, going on to recall that McMillan’s suit referenced a 2008 case in Alabama that was virtually identical to Constance’s own situation. The plaintiff in the Alabama case won. (In McMillan’s case, it was a draw: the court found that McMillen’s rights had been violated, but did not require the school to reschedule the canceled prom, as the Alabama court had done.)

"Though McMillen has suffered plenty throughout her ordeal, much of her life is proof that the South is changing culturally as well as legally," Slate.com asserted. The proof? The article cites McMillen’s own lesbian mother, overlooked in most mainstream press articles. Moreover, the article asserted, neither McMillen nor her girlfriend had encountered much anti-gay bullying at school, until the prom’s cancellation: it was at that point that classmates became aggravated. "If anything, Constance’s family life is an example of how gay people and nontraditional families increasingly get by without much ado in Mississippi," Slate.com noted.

A July 6 posting from Jacksonville, Florida at Examiner.com asserts that acceptance for GLBTs in Florida is greater than in Mississippi. "Here is a teenage girl who did not hurt anyone, did not pursue any effort to embarrass anyone, but was just attempting to be herself," writer Scott Gemmill notes. "How could people discriminate and allow this to happen to a young girl like this? Could something like this happen in Jacksonville?

"I personally feel this region has grown much quicker to accept a much more diverse group of people than those in Jackson, Mississippi apparently have," adds Gemmill.

Even if life in contemporary Mississippi is more accepting of GLBTs than generally be thought, the McMillen case has led to further progress in the area. A July 20 press release from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) relates that the Itawamba School Board, rather than continue an ongoing lawsuit surrounding the canceled prom, has agreed to settle.

"The agreement ends a precedent-setting lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 18-year-old Constance McMillen, who suffered humiliation and harassment after parents, students and school officials executed a cruel plan to put on a ’decoy’ prom for her while the rest of her classmates were at a private prom 30 miles away," the release states.

"I’m so glad this is all over," McMillen said. "I won’t ever get my prom back, but it’s worth it if it changes things at my school." Added McMillen, "I hope this means that in the future students at my school will be treated fairly. I know there are students and teachers who want to start a gay-straight alliance club, and they should be able to do that without being treated like I was by the school."

"As set forth in documents filed in court today, school officials agreed to implement a policy banning discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the first policy to do so at a public school in the state of Mississippi," the release read. "The school also agreed to pay McMillen $35,000 in damages and pay for McMillen’s attorneys’ fees."

"Constance went through a great deal of harassment and humiliation simply for standing up for her rights, and she should be proud of what she has accomplished," ACLU senior counsel Christine P. Sun, who works with the group’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project, said. "Thanks to her bravery, we now not only have a federal court precedent that can be used to protect the rights of students all over the country to bring the date they want to their proms, but we also have the first school anti-discrimination policy of its kind in Mississippi."

"This has been about much more than just the prom all along," said co-counsel Kristy L. Bennett, "it’s about all of our young people deserving to be treated fairly by the schools we trust to take care of them."

"After IAHS’s original prom date was canceled by school officials in response to McMillen’s request that she be allowed to bring her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo, parents organized a private prom at which district officials told a federal judge McMillen and her date would be welcome," the release recounted. "That private prom was then canceled as well, allegedly because parents did not want to allow McMillen to attend, instead organizing a ’decoy’ prom for McMillen and her date and another prom for the rest of the class.

"McMillen and her date then attended the event the school had told her was ’the prom for juniors and seniors’ on April 2, where they found only seven other students attending. Principal Trae Wiygul and several school staff members were supervising that event while most of McMillen’s classmates were at the other prom in Evergreen, Mississippi," the release added.

"We hope this judgment sends a message to schools that they cannot get away with discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students," said ACLU of Mississippi Interim Director Bear Atwood. "LGBT youth just want to be treated like their peers and do all the normal high school things, like going to the prom with the date they choose. We’re very proud of Constance for standing up not just for her rights but the rights of LGBT students everywhere."

In the North, GLBT students have also made great strides: so much so, that gay dates at the prom is passé. Now it’s on to same-sex prom royalty, as in the case of Charlie Ferrusi and Timmy Howard, high schoolers in Hudson, New York, who shared the honor of being Prom King and King last month.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

Comments

  • Anonymous, 2010-07-21 10:33:46

    Thank you for providing extra details and information on where tolerance and acceptance is breaking through in the South, and the North. Visibility and a determination not to be treated as a second-class citizen is a continuing important goal for LGBTQ persons and supporters. --Gabriel’s World (Gabrielsworld.com)


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