CHRIS JOYNER • CHRIS.JOYNER@JACKSON.GANNETT.COM • MARCH 11, 2010
Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, said Wednesday the school board's decision to cancel the school prom rather than allow her to attend with her girlfriend is retaliation.
McMillen and the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi gave the district until Wednesday to drop its objections to same-sex dates. The school board responded with a statement canceling the prom and suggesting a private group host an independent prom instead.
"We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this causes anyone," the message concluded.
McMillen was alarmed when she heard of the board's decision to cancel the April 2 dance.
"Oh, my God. That's really messed up because the message they are sending is that if they have to let gay people go to prom that they are not going to have one," she said. "A bunch of kids at school are really going to hate me for this, so in a way it's really retaliation."
School officials told McMillen last month that she could not bring her sophomore girlfriend to the prom and could not wear a tuxedo. The school then circulated a memo prohibiting same-sex dates.
"I asked my teacher about it, and she said, 'Well, you have to remember where you are,'" McMillen said.
But Christine Sun, the ACLU's senior attorney for its gay rights project, said the ban on same-sex dates is a violation of McMillen's constitutional rights.
"We believe the law is pretty clear," Sun said. "The school just can't arbitrarily say you have to be an opposite (sex) date to (go to) the prom."
McMillen said she believes the district is trying to get around the issue by having a private group hold the dance to limit attendance.
"If they set it up privately they probably aren't going to allow gay people to go, and there is nothing that you can do about it," she said. "I'm going to have to change schools or something."
McMillen has spent her entire life in Fulton, a city of about 4,100 people in the northeast corner of the state. Her grandmother, Dale McMillen, said she supports her decision to contest the policy.
"I've always tried to teach my children and my grandchildren that if you believe in something you need to stand up for it," she said.
School officials did not respond to calls for comment.
"I feel like I should be able to go and be myself and not have to worry about what clothes I'm wearing or who I am bringing or who I'm dancing with," Constance McMillen said.
The debate has attracted the attention of the Liberty Counsel, a conservative social policy organization based in Orlando, Fla., which offered the district free legal services to fight for the policy.
"We view this as part of a broader picture," Liberty Counsel attorney Stephen Crampton said. "It's not, sadly enough, about one young lady's desire to bring her date to the prom."
Crampton said attempts to override policies such as the one in Fulton are part of an agenda to force legal recognition of same-sex couples. Crampton noted Mississippi is one of a number of states still with antisodomy laws.
"The district might be motivated by a desire to prevent the ultimate conduct that is presumptively illegal in this state," he said.
A 2003 Supreme Court decision struck down a Texas sodomy statute and ruled all similar state statutes are unconstitutional.
Crampton said the district has not responded to its offer of help.
Sun said the ACLU receives requests for help every year from students facing anti-gay prom policies. The complaints are especially prevalent in the South, where attitudes toward sexuality are more conservative, she said.
In November, the Franklin County School System in Russellville, Ala., a town of about 9,000, reversed its policy prohibiting a lesbian student from attending a prom with her girlfriend after the ACLU got involved.
McMillen said she drew strength from the example set by Ceara Sturgis, a senior in Wesson who last fall challenged her school's policy to require her to wear a velvet drape for her senior yearbook photo. Sturgis, a lesbian, took her photo wearing a tuxedo.
The school district left her out of the yearbook, but Sturgis' stand attracted national media attention and acclaim among gay rights groups.
Sturgis said it is hard to stand up to your school, and she said she told McMillen she is proud of her.
"I told her myself to not give up," she said. "She has just as much right as anyone else to bring who she wants and wear what she wants."
School districts around the nation have found ways to accommodate gay students.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, gay and lesbian students may attend a separate prom, sponsored by the Utah Pride Center, a gay advocacy group, center executive director Valerie Larabee said.
Similarly, gay students in Miami can attend a gay prom held the past 15 years by Prideline Youth Services, an organization aimed at gay and lesbian students in south Florida. Executive Director Luigi Ferrer said gay students often found themselves shut out of their proms when the gay prom first was established.
Today, across the Miami-Dade County Public Schools policies are in place accepting same-sex couples at the big dance, Ferrer said. But reluctant school administrators still make some students feel uncomfortable, he said.
Last year, students at Fairfax Senior High School in Los Angeles elected gay senior Sergio Garcia as prom queen.
"That was news, even in Los Angeles," said Virginia Uribe, founder of gay student advocacy group Project 10.
She said the Los Angeles Unified School District's tolerant attitudes toward gay and lesbian students is the product of years of work.
But she said she knows that is not the case in more conservative areas of the country. Students such as McMillen are "enormously courageous" for making their stands, she said.
Chris Joyner at (601) 360-4619.
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