A date, a tux, and a prom

Constance McMillen had a dancing partner. She had an outfit—a tuxedo. She even offered to arrive separately so no one would have to see her and her date arriving as a couple.

Officials at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi gagged. Allow a lesbian couple to appear in public? What about slow dancing? What about the sensibilities of parents and students?

They told her no. No same-sex partner. No tuxedo. No dancing with her girlfriend.

Constance refused to knuckle under. Somewhere along the way someone had taught her she had rights. She had the audacity to believe them.

Candace McMillen

Candace McMillen

So she contacted the ACLU. On March 2nd, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi wrote a strongly-worded letter to the school district and the principal, insisting they allow Constance “to bring her same-sex date and to wear a tuxedo to the prom.” They gave the district a deadline of March 10th.

The district responded on time. They canceled the prom.

In a memo dated March 10, 2010, the Itawamba County Board of Education explained their rationale:

“Due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events, the Itawamba County School District has decided to not host a prom at Itawamba Agricultural High School this year. It is our hope that private citizens will organize an event for the juniors and seniors.”

The board likely didn’t anticipate the storm of support for Constance. And they clearly didn’t expect Todd and Diana Stiefel, members of the American Humanist Association, to offer $20,000 to throw a senior prom, open to anyone who wanted to attend.

Meanwhile, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the high school, asking the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi “to reinstate the prom for all students at the school” and charging the school district with violation of Constance’s right to freedom of expression.

Constance became a poster child for supporters around the world. New York media flew her north for interviews. Back in Fulton she became an outcast. Fortunately, her family and a few friends stood behind her, along with thousands of fans on her Facebook page.

In an interview for Slog, a blog on the Web site of The Stranger (a Seattle alternative arts and culture newspaper), she told supporters who might want to write to school officials to “please be respectful. No one hears if you’re screaming and mad and cussing and stuff.”

Sage advice from a teen who says she “just wanted to take my girlfriend to prom, you know? I thought it might make the local news and maybe help future LGBT students at Itawamba because hopefully they wouldn’t have to put up with what I did.”

Constance is showing a lot of courage. Her story breaks my heart. I’d hoped by now young people would no longer have to hide their true selves.

Reading about Constance brings back the memory of a fine young man who used to hang out in the high school library where I worked.

One day he approached me and asked what I thought about homosexuals. He seemed disappointed when I told him it was just another way of being in the world, neither better nor worse than heterosexuality. He brought the conversation to a quick end and left.

He has haunted me ever since. He came from a family in which being gay was tantamount to buying a one-way ticket to hell. I hope he figured out they were wrong and went on to have healthy and loving relationships with whatever partners were right for him.

Things have improved a lot since then, but a Mississippi high school is proving we still have a long way to go.

So thank you, Constance McMillen, for having the courage to be honest about who you really are and for refusing to let that closet door stay shut. Your detractors will make you pay for your honesty and integrity. Your supporters will put you on a pedestal.

I have a hunch you are solid enough to deal with both. You and a lot of other young people around the world are challenging stereotypes. You’re bringing us closer to the day when the battle you are embroiled in will be a curious, historical footnote.

For more on the story:

  • ACLU Web site
  • Constance’s Facebook fan page (with over 300,000 fans)
  • Here’s Constance thanking her supporters:

Update:

  • Constance appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show. She’s a shy young woman with a 3.86 grade average (out of 4.0). She has intelligence and backbone. DeGeneres wanted to throw a prom for her, but that’s not what Constance wants. She just wants to be herself and go to the prom like any of her classmates. So Tonic, thanks to an anonymous donor, stepped in with a different offer: A $30,000 cheque for her university education and an offer of an internship with Tonic the summer after her graduation.
  • In the news as of March 20, the school board has canceled the prom, claiming that makes Constance’s claim of violation of her constitutional rights a non issue. Parents are planning to organize a private prom, to which Constance will not be invited.
  • Offers are coming in to host an LGBT inclusive prom for students at Itawamba Agricultural High School, and Constance has been invited to present comedian Wanda Sykes with the Stephen F. Kolzak award on April 17th.
  • The court has ruled that Constance’s First Amendment rights were violated and says they expect her to be invited to the private prom parents are planning.
  • Parents pulled a bait and switch so Constance and her date showed up at a nearly empty country club and had their own quiet, lonely but ultimately courageous prom.
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