Thursday, March 11, 2010

Personal Prerogative: Mississippi School Calls Off Entire Prom Due To Homophobia

A Mississippi school has decided to cancel its prom because a student, who is a lesbian, wanted to attend that prom with her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo. Haven't we had enough of this?

From the Associated Press:
JACKSON, Miss. – A northern Mississippi school district decided Wednesday not to host a high school prom after a lesbian student demanded she be able to attend with her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo.

The Itawamba County school district's policy requires that senior prom dates be of the opposite sex. The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi had given the district until Wednesday to change that policy and allow 18-year-old Constance McMillen to escort her girlfriend, who is also a student, to the dance on April 2.

Instead, the school board met and issued a statement announcing it wouldn't host the event at Itawamba County Agricultural High School in Fulton, "due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events."

The statement didn't mention McMillen or the ACLU. When asked by The Associated Press if McMillen's demand led to the cancellation, school board attorney Michele Floyd said she could only reference the statement.

"It is our hope that private citizens will organize an event for the juniors and seniors," district officials said in the statement. "However, at this time, we feel that it is in the best interest of the Itawamba County School District, after taking into consideration the education, safety and well being of our students."

The ACLU said a school policy banning same-sex prom dates violated McMillen's constitutional rights.

Kristy Bennett, legal director for the ACLU of Mississippi, said the district was trying to avoid the issue.

"But that doesn't take away their legal obligations to treat all the students fairly," Bennett said. "On Constance's behalf, this is unfair to her. All she's trying to do is assert her rights."

Bennett said she wouldn't allow McMillen to comment on Wednesday, saying "she's still trying to process" the district's actions. Calls to McMillen's cell phone went unanswered.

Itawamba County is a rural area of about 23,000 people in north Mississippi near the Alabama state line. It borders Pontotoc County, Miss., where more than a decade ago school officials were sued in federal court over their practice of student-led intercom prayer and Bible classes.

Anna Watson, a 17-year-old junior at the high school, was looking forward to the prom, especially since the town's only hotspot is the bowling alley, she said.
"I am a little bummed out about it. I guess it's a decision that had to be made. Either way someone was going to get disappointed — either Constance was or we were," Watson said. "I don't agree with homosexuality, but I can't change what another person thinks or does."

Other students are on McMillen's side.

McKenzie Chaney, 16, said she wasn't planning to attend the prom, but "it's kind of ridiculous that they can't let her wear the tuxedo and it all be over with."

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.

The ACLU said McMillen approached school officials shortly before the memo went out because she knew same-sex dates had been banned in the past. The ACLU said district officials told McMillen she and her girlfriend wouldn't be allowed to arrive together, that she would not be allowed to wear a tuxedo, and that she and her girlfriend might be asked to leave if their presence made any other students "uncomfortable."

McMillen said she feared she would be thrown out of the prom because "we do live in the Bible Belt."

This story, to me, as a person that deals with young people on a near daily basis, is INCREDIBLY sad. What this district is implicitly saying is that we HATE what you are enough that we are going to CANCEL something dear not only to you, but to ALL STUDENTS! Because you aren't who we want you to be, we will not accept you for who you are. And these are EDUCATORS!

Am I off base?

On what planet should this type of behavior by a school district tolerated in 2010? However you feel personally, just think about what this district is telling this young person. This cuts me deep, and I don't have a dog in this fight.

Many youngsters would just drop this and move on, but it sounds like Constance McMillen is incredibly strong. It seems like she tried to do exactly what is right. She tried to approach the district first and get the policy changed. That took a great deal of courage. Still, the district chose to hold to the policy denying her rights. By canceling the prom, that district has now deprived the entire group of young people one of the traditional moments of a high school career, and the reason is so wrong.

McMillen could have gotten a dress and invited a boy, but that is just not right. Why should she be forced to conform to an image of sexuality that is not her? Last year, I chaperoned a prom where more than one girl came in a tux and where more than one boy brought a boy.

We had a blast, but I teach at a school that has an administration that VALUES its diversity. It actively seeks to make diversity an aspect of the school culture that is celebrated rather than shunned. This Mississippi school wants its students to apparently fit into a nice, neat, and clean set of so-called traditional values. In 2010, students don't fit those traditional molds like they may have 50 years ago. Thus, kids need us to celebrate who they are rather than try to make them who we want them to be.

If I were a student at this school, I'd be mad as hell, but I wouldn't be mad at McMillen. I'd be mad at the district. I'd be mad because they are not valuing ANY of us for who we are. Whether I'm gay, straight, bisexual, black, white, Asian, whatever, my rights are in danger in a school district that does this sort of thing.

Somebody needs to give the Itawamba County school district in Mississippi a calendar because it's not 1955 anymore. You would serve your students better if you meet them where they are. You would serve them better if you try to walk in their shoes. You would serve them better sometimes if you listen rather than dictate.

Hopefully, this attention will help this school district understand that this is not okay and that we have had enough of discrimination and homophobia. If school districts like this one are allowed to continue these practices, we will continue to lose kids in the educational process.


Anonymous said...

The only thing I disagree with in this entire post is that you label it "personal prerogative," which you define as "Something not political...just something that interests me, ticks me off, or I find amusing." This behavior (which is not limited to places like Mississippi) is absolutely political. Hate has become a political problem.

Mookie said...

What sucks is that if you look at the news websites and read this article, the reader comments are overwhelmingly along the lines of "That horrible girl had to have it her way so she made them cancel prom over her own selfish needs." Sometimes I really hate the people I'm forced to share this planet with.

Thanks for the excellent post, Jon.

Sean Shepard said...

Kind of agree with Mookie's comment. If a private school wants to have some kind of restriction, that would be within their right however wrong we might think it to be; but, a public government school must treat everybody equally.

There have been a few cases like this one that have popped up across the country and gotten media attention and it always makes the people making these decisions look like a bunch of bigoted morons.

I doubt the school atmosphere has changed much since I attended so I assume things are hard enough on young people who don't conform to everyone else's opinion of how they should or shouldn't be. Young people, especially, can be very cruel as they don't understand the long term damage that can be done. But, when adults pile it on as well that's got to be even worse.

Marycatherine Barton said...

It looks like this issue will end in court, probably a federal court in Mississippi. From the manner in which CNN portrayed the aggrieved high school student, Constance McMillan, she is a humble young white woman, who lives in a working class neighborhood, who is experiencing some adverse peer pressure, which I think will likely increase.

I am so sorry for all the pain that this fight to open up the senior prom to homosexuals and bisexuals, is causing so many. About what decision the court will make, or if there will be a mediation, I have no guess.