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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Same-sex Couples at Proms?!


Let me establish just a few facts before the focus of this post.

1. 9% of high school students identify as "gay, lesbian, bisexual or questioning." (Seattle Public Schools, "1995 Seattle Teen Health Risk Survey," reprinted in Third Annual Report of the Safe Schools Anti-Violence Documentation Project, 1996)


2. The typical high school student hears anti-gay slurs 25.5 times a day. (Carter, Kellye, "Gay Slurs Abound," in The Des Moines Register, March 7, 1997)

3. 53% of students report hearing homophobic comments made by school staff. (Making Schools Safe for Gay and Lesbian Youth: Report of the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, 1993)

Over twenty years ago, the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island upheld the right of a gay student to bring a same-sex date to a high school dance in the case of  (student Aaron) Fricke v. (Principal Richard) Lynch.  In this decision, the Court ruled that existing free speech doctrine protected gay and lesbian students' rights to attend their proms with same-sex dates of their choice.

The case was one of the first successful victories in the courtroom for a Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender (LGBT) issue involving young people. The federal court in Rhode Island told Aaron's school that it had to let him attend the prom with Paul. In fact, the court even told the school that it had to provide enough security that Aaron and his date would be safe.

After Aaron went with Paul to the prom, Aaron remembered what he was thinking as he stared at all the reporters who were there:

"I thought of all the people who would have enjoyed going to their proms with the date of their choice, but were denied that right; of all the people in the past who wanted to live respectably with the person they loved but could not; of all the men and women who had been hurt or killed because they were gay; and of the rich history of lesbians and homosexual men that had so long been ignored. Gradually we were triumphing over ignorance. One day we would be free." 
 
The Court had decided that "even a legitimate interest in school discipline does not outweigh a student's right to peacefully express his views in an appropriate time, place, and manner." The Court ruled that threats of violence against Fricke and his date gave homophobic students an unconstitutional "heckler' veto that would allow "them to decide through prohibited and violent methods what speech will be heard." (Fricke v. Lynch, May 28, 1980)

This ruling, along with many others, would seem to spell out certain student rights of sexual orientation. Incidents in Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia in recent years have made schools back down rather than face litigation when they have been challenged on policies that discriminate against homosexual students. The courts have taken care of the cases the schools haven't.

 Constance McMillen

But, in 2010, Mississippi must still not have received the memo. 

Constance  wanted to take her lesbian partner and wear a tuxedo to the prom.

The Itawamba County Agricultural High School prom, originally scheduled for April 2, was eventually canceled by school board officials who previously said they reached their decision based on "the education, safety and well-being of [its] students." A Feb. 5 memo to students laid out the criteria for bringing a date to the prom, and one requirement was that the person must be of the opposite sex.(Carlin DeGuerin Miller, "Constance McMillen Wanted to Taker Her Girlfriend to the Prom, So the School Board Canceled It,"
 CBS News, March 11 2010)

McMillen challenged the memo. Then, the ACLU sent a letter on Constance's behalf, and one week later, the school canceled the prom. McMillen and her lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union challenged that decision in court.

The ACLU lawyers cited the 2008 ruling Collins v. Scottsboro Board of Education in which an Alabama circuit court forced a high school to reinstate a prom it had canceled rather than allow a lesbian student to attend in a tux with a female date. This time, in response to the ACLU's request to force the school to reinstate the prom, Judge Glen H. Davidson, a Reagan appointee, ruled in March that the school had violated McMillen's First Amendment right to freedom of expression. (, "Constance McMillen's Suit Over the Prom Is Winning Over the South," .

That was good news according to her attorney, Christine Sun, senior counsel with the ACLU's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender project. Not only did the ruling win Constance's case, it also set a precedent and helped broadcast an important statement, which was made stronger by virtue of where it came from, she said. Though McMillen has suffered plenty throughout her ordeal, much of her life is proof that the South is changing culturally as well as legally. 

So, what did the school do? McMillen was sent to a "fake prom" while the rest of her class partied at a secret location at an event organized by parents. McMillen told The Advocate that a parent-organized prom happened behind her back — she and her date were sent to an event at a country club in Fulton, Mississippi, that attracted only five other students. Her school principal and teachers served as chaperones, but clearly there wasn't much to keep an eye on. (Neal Broverman, "McMillen: I Was Sent to Fake Prom," www.advocate.com, April 5 2010)

According to a statement from the ACLU, McMillenMcMillen believes the alternative prom she was sent to was a sham because only a handful of people attended. "A lot of people were talking about how it was a joke just set up for me," she previously said. Still, at the time, support from around the nation poured in for the teen.

"We're in a conservative area of the country, where people tend to think we can do what we like," said Sun, who lives in New York but has traveled multiple times to Mississippi on McMillen's behalf. "This case sends a strong message that that's not going to fly anymore."

In 2004, the national gay rights group GLSEN -- the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network -- had issued a report that said of all 50 states, Mississippi had the most hostile environment for gay youths.(GLSEN 2003 National School Climate Survey, www.glsen.org, April 1 2005)

"We hope this judgment sends a message to schools that they cannot get away with discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students," said Bear Atwood, interim legal director at the ACLU of Mississippi. Is this just another communications breakdown?

McMillen eventually transferred out of the district, graduating from Murrah High School in Jackson with a 3.86 GPA. She said she transferred out of the district to escape harassment from other students who blamed her for the prom controversy.


More Celebrity

The Itawamba County school board in Mississippi had already agreed to pay Constance McMillen $35,000 in damages and adopt a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to a statement released this July by the American Civil Liberties Union. ("Mississippi School Pays Damages to Lesbian Teen Over Prom Dispute," CNN Wire Staff, July 20 2010) 

Constance McMillen became quite a celebrity. "I'm not going to go to prom and pretend like I'm not gay," she said matter-of-factly to Ellen Degeneres. The "Ellen" show awarded her a $30,000 scholarship, she appeared at the GLAAD Awards, and even rode as a grand marshal in the NYC Pride parade. Most teens might trade a prom for the following: a well-financed education, the recognition of millions of people across the country and self-respect. (Thomas Rogers, "The Year in Sanity: Constance McMillen," www.salon.com, October 12 2010)




Denise McMillen, her mother, who is 37 and lives in southern Mississippi, has openly dated women since her 20s and raised Constance's 15-year-old younger sister with her partner, Elsa. Her mother is not a gay activist, unless that is what living openly makes you.

Denise says her own churchgoing mother accepted her sexual orientation almost immediately and that she has rarely found herself the subject of anti-gay hostility. Constance's father and his very religious parents have said that while they may not approve of homosexuality generally, they accept Constance as she is. Constance doesn't recall her classmates at Itawamba High voicing any objection to her sexual orientation until the school cancelled the prom. Both Constance and Denise say they have never feared for their safety. (, "Constance McMillen's Suit Over the Prom Is Winning Over the South,"

Though she doesn't belong to a church, McMillen describes herself as an "open-minded Christian" and a strong believer in monogamy, which she expresses in a distinctly evangelical way. "Actually, I have a promise ring from my girlfriend, and I'm pretty sure that within the next year she's going to propose. Of course, we wouldn't get married until she's 18." (, "Constance McMillen's Suit Over the Prom Is Winning Over the South,"
  
Update

A federal judge just ordered  the Itawamba Mississippi school district to pay about $81,000 in legal fees and expenses in the lawsuit. The decision Tuesday by a federal judge may be the final chapter in the well-publicized legal battle between Constance McMillen and the Mississippi school district. Although the lawsuit was settled in July when the school district agreed to pay McMillen $35,000 in damages and adopt a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, the July settlement was not part of the $81,000 payment ordered by the judge Tuesday.(CNN staff, "School District Ordered to Pay Legal Fees for Lesbian Student," CNN, October 27 2010)

Now, McMillen is treated as a heroine in the LGBT community. She is in demand everywhere. Constance has met President Barack Obama at the White House during a reception of the nation’s LGBT leaders, and she has a Facebook page called "Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!" that has attracted more than 400,000 fans to date

Constance has big plans for her future, and it won’t involve living in rural Mississippi. “After community college, I will spend four years at Southern Mississippi University,” she said. Then she wants to come to Southern California to get a doctorate degree in psychology.(Ken Williams, "Constance McMillen: Small-town Girl Fighting for Her Rights Becomes Symbol for Young LGBT Activists," www.sdgln.com/news, July 10 2010)

“And I want a second job after college,” she said. “I want to keep being an activist. I want to find something that I can do to help others not go the ordeal that I have gone through.”

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